Climate Activist Visits Wilderness Before Prison Term

Tim DeChristopher was to go to prison, convicted of disrupting a government sale of oil and gas leases. He called his actions an act off civil disobedience against climate change. Prosecutors called them felonies. Ahead of his confinement, DeChristopher wanted to go on a final wilderness adventure.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

This summer, a federal judge in Salt Lake City sentenced a climate activist named Tim DeChristopher to two years in prison. His crime: disrupting an auction of government, oil and gas leases. DeChristopher was a 27-year-old college student in the closing days of the Bush administration when he bid for and won almost two-dozen parcels that he knew he couldn't pay for. He called it an act of climate civil disobedience.

A couple of months ago, a jury found him guilty of two felonies. Now, before his sentencing, the activist set out on a last wilderness adventure - the descent of a river in Utah.

An old friend of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, reporter Alex Chadwick, was along.

ALEX CHADWICK, BYLINE: I'd been following energy stories in the West, which is how I met Tim DeChristopher and John Weisheit.

JOHN WEISHEIT: So the snow melt has started, and every day the river is going to rise until it's exhausted.

CHADWICK: That's John, used to be a river guide, now a river advocate - an activist.

WEISHEIT: And they're saying that this year will be a high year.

CHADWICK: You hear that (unintelligible). John is rowing us down the Green River in eastern Utah. It's peaceful, but that's going to change. The Green is a tributary of the Colorado, and we'll reach it in a few days and we'll start down Cataract Canyon, 20 miles of almost continuous rapids that John knows well.

WEISHEIT: I've done it so many times and I've done all the failures that can be done.

CHADWICK: Cataract Canyon is one of the most notorious runs in the country at normal water flow, and we will be way past that. Too late now, there's no way off the river but down it.

WEISHEIT: I'm not worried at all. I think we'll do fine.

CHADWICK: I'm less confident of the outcome, or really of anything else. John invited me on this trip because of my wife and radio partner, Carolyn. She died a year ago. I tried to save her for months and failed. I stopped working and couldn't start again. I've been lost. John thinks the river is restorative, healing. And it is the kind of place that Carolyn liked.

There are several other guides on the trip - it's fun to go when it's scary. And there's Tim DeChristopher, a former wilderness guide, about 30, solidly built, hair clipped as short as the stubble on his face, calm like a monk. With a degree in economics and two federal felonies, the sentence pending then.

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I'm expecting around two or three years. But it's hard to say.

CHADWICK: The felonies are from a Salt Lake City oil and gas auction Tim disrupted with fake bids he couldn't pay. He says it was an unplanned, spontaneous act of climate protest.

DECHRISTOPHER: I lost hope in a lot of things. I lost hope in having any sort of normal future, anything that my parents would define as a normal future of, you know, a career and retirement, and a family and all that stuff.

CHADWICK: The auction and his arrest made Tim DeChristopher a hero among the Greens. He was someone willing to risk all and then risk again.

DECHRISTOPHER: I have no remorse at all for my actions.

CHADWICK: Courts looks for remorse.

DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I don't have it.

CHADWICK: I get it that he wants to run Cataract Canyon in high water. But no remorse may be even riskier. He's about to be sentenced. Contrition might help.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAWKING)

CHADWICK: The ravens. They're mad at us because we don't leave anything at our campsite. It's still several days to the rapids - water high, but smooth. And days settle in unhurried patterns - row, camp, fire, talk. I'm making notes and interviewing Tim, partly from habit, partly to see if I can still do it without Carolyn there.

DECHRISTOPHER: At the height of the Somali pirate thing a couple of years ago, the pirate leaders released a statement to the Western world where he said: You have no idea what life in Somalia is like. You can't possibly understand how desperate our situation is. And he said: Your power comes from your ability to take things away from people. And therefore you can't stop us, because you have nothing left to take away. And it was a statement that really struck me as really profound.

CHADWICK: The Greens need a charismatic leader, but this is a man with a very dark view - climate change as Apocalypse, rising seas, flood, drought, famine, all in decades. Further, Tim DeChristopher believes it's too late now to stop, and the danger isn't so much from climate. It's us, human societies under severe stress. It's what we will become, maybe something like the Dark Ages, that's what he thinks climate change will mean.

I wonder if the people you're targeting might not really enjoy hearing you say this. They'll say: Look, this guy is a radical, a self-described radical. And he's on the side of the Somali pirates, for God's sakes. If you want to be on that side, that's who you're standing with.

DECHRISTOPHER: From what I've seen, my opponents really don't like to have people hear what I have to say. They do like to, you know, try to put words into my mouth. You know, say, oh, he mentioned the Somali pirates and saw something profound in what they were saying, so therefore he's on their side. But they've actually really avoided spreading anything that I say.

I think they know that when people see someone like me as a person, and start to actually, you know, consider the things that I'm saying, it's hard to vilify someone like that. And I think that's dangerous to those in power, when the people on the bottom start to see that the people they're told to hate aren't really their enemy.

CHADWICK: Day seven. We reached the Colorado yesterday. The water is bigger, faster. It rained overnight, the wind tore down my shelter, storm bands keep coming, everyone looks rattier. It's just light now, a little after six. John Weisheit's wife is headed toward the boats.

Here comes an experienced river guide, Susette Weisheit. Susette, how does the river look today?

SUSETTE WEISCHEIT: Fantastic. I mean we're up, the river is cooking along. It surprised us all by coming up a little bit further than we thought it would, and kind of encroached on our camp. But, you know, more is better.

CHADWICK: More is better? Hmm.

WEISCHEIT: I love it.

CHADWICK: We are going down Cataract Canyon today at six times normal flow. Small driftwood trees rush by, parts of bigger ones. We air-pump the boats, so the rubberized skin is drum tight. John's boat is 17-feet long, the beam not half that. The river is 50-yards wide and it looks bad all the way across.

WEISHEIT: I've seen it this high a lot, and I know what's down here and what to expect. And so, it really doesn't terrify me anymore.

CHADWICK: The first big rapid, John shoves an oar hard, the boat finds a narrowing V. The water is fast, but the moment stretches like a dream, as though we're falling very slowly and there's always enough time to save ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)

CHADWICK: Bam, bam, bam through a series of waves, and we pull to the riverbank out of the tumble and froth to the safe solidity of land. On a high point on the rocky slope ahead, we stand looking down at the ugly place we are about to go.

What rapid are you all talking about?

WEISHEIT: Well, that's Rapid Number 15. Some people call it Capsize. Some people call it Hell-to-Pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHADWICK: A big piece of driftwood shoots through perfectly. Looks easy. Then a log the size of a person catches the channel wrong, hits a rock, rolls under, disappears.

WEISHEIT: How do you think we should run it?

WEISCHEIT: Hay-diddle-diddle...

WEISHEIT: What does that mean?

WEISCHEIT: Right down the middle.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEISCHEIT: But there's a huge momma hole on the left side. So just don't get there.

CHADWICK: Watching them watch the river, I see the patterns. Even in the places that look crazy, some ways are better than others. Stay calm. See what's there. It's still dangerous, but it's more interesting than scary. And I'm thinking about Tim, and the judge, and the sentencing, and risk.

This is not a good time for him to be testing any more limits. But it's like the river you're caught in the currents. You can see the patterns, look for them, find the way.

DECHRISTOPHER: I think I can be dangerous to them in either place.

CHADWICK: He told me he's been talking with other activists about whether a political dissident can be more dangerous to the government in prison than out.

DECHRISTOPHER: There is certainly a power in an activist going to jail. I think it undermines the moral legitimacy of the current government if, in order to continue what they're doing, they have to put principled, honest people in jail. But, you know, I'll also continue organizing if they don't lock me up. So, I think it's a no-win for them. That's why it's a powerful thing if we're willing to actually make those sacrifices.

CHADWICK: A huge, dim mass ahead to the left, blurry under a layer of fast water. We're in a steep drop and behind the boulder, there's a hole like the gateway to another dimension. It's close enough to spit in. The boat hesitates and pushes by. That's the Buttonhook, John says, and he's looking down river at the next rapid coming on.

In prison, Tim will begin writing a book, a series of letters to his father. During the Salt Lake trial, his mother and sister came over from Denver for support. His father, a retired executive from the energy industry, did not.

When he talks to you about you about who you are and what you've done, what your beliefs are, do you understand him?

DECHRISTOPHER: I think I do. I think he comes from a genuine belief that we have a system that works and it has for him. You know, he came from a poor family and worked hard and studied hard and became an engineer. And, you know, moved up through the ranks and became secure and very comfortable. I guess I kind of view my father as a prototypical, comfortable liberal in America.

And I feel like that's the audience that I'm most drawn to addressing. And so, I think, you know, a book is a series of letters to him, you know, without the kind of emotional directness of our actual conversations. I think it might be a good way to address the comfortable liberal audience.

CHADWICK: When did you last speak with him?

DECHRISTOPHER: Christmas.

CHADWICK: That's a long time.

DECHRISTOPHER: Yup.

CHADWICK: But maybe it's not so long. Carolyn died nine months earlier and she's still present, always. Early in the morning of the last day, I tell her about this trip that she should have joined. We'd run Cataract Canyon the day before in six hours. We're loading boats again now and I find my friend, the river guide, John Weisheit.

DECHRISTOPHER: I'm trying to remember that thing that you told me that you have to do when things get really bad.

WEISHEIT: Oh, yes. Sometimes, things don't happen very well on the river and boats slip or driftwood gets in the way and one of the things that I've learned through the years is, when things get, like, you're actually combating nature and you're not getting anywhere, it's best to surrender. When you're out here, there's nothing wrong with surrender. It's actually a good idea.

CHADWICK: The next day, Tim and I share a ride a ride back to Salt Lake. We talk about prison, about being in, waiting to get out, about patience and finding that line through the bad parts where the patterns start to blur and it will help, maybe, to remember what happens on the river.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Producer Alex Chadwick gathered material for his story this summer. Tim DeChristopher is now serving a two-year sentence in federal prison in California.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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