Image: Tim DeCristopher
Steve Griffin  /  The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
Tim DeCristopher was awarded drilling lease rights on 22,500 acres of federal land in Utah. But he has no intention to use them, and as a result could face fraud charges.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/9/2009 5:51:27 PM ET 2009-01-09T22:51:27

In an effort to avoid fraud charges, the environmental activist who infiltrated a federal drilling auction said Friday that he had raised $45,000 to make his first payment for leases on 22,500 acres.

The Bureau of Land Management has said it's too late for Tim DeChristopher to make the down payment because the deposit was due immediately after last month's auction for leases near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah.

But, in a letter to supporters, DeChristopher said he has a backup plan if he's refused and the parcels are auctioned again. In that case, he wrote, "the money given to my Lease Fund will be used to acquire these parcels in the new auction."

He also held out the possibility that the incoming Obama administration would withdraw the parcels from auction. "In this event, I will contact the donors and ask them whether the money should be returned, used for my defense fund, or given to another active environmental cause."

DeChristopher, a college economics student from Salt Lake City, bid up prices at the auction in an effort, he says, to protect wild lands in Utah.

The process was thrown into chaos and the bidding halted for a time before the sale of 132 parcels covering 164,000 acres was concluded.

BLM official: He 'tainted' auction
"He's tainted the entire auction," Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for the U.S. BLM in Utah, said after the auction.

The FBI later questioned DeChristopher, who said he successfully bid on more than $1.7 million in parcels.

"I tried to resist this sale any way I could," said the 27-year-old University of Utah economics student. "I thought I could be effective by making bids, driving up prices for others and winning some bids myself."

For weeks, the sale has drawn complaints from environmental groups and scathing criticism from actor Robert Redford.

Activists said the sale would threaten Utah's wild lands and spoil the view from some of the state's spectacular national parks with drilling rigs.

Dozens protested auction
"If we're going to sacrifice public lands, let's do it with some deliberation, not in a hasty way," said Joseph Flower, a University of Utah biology student who was among about 100 protesters outside the auction.

Video: Redford's take

The bureau already had pulled some parcels from the sale in response to complaints from the National Park Service and others. Ultimately, the agency dropped more than half of the 359,000 acres first proposed for auction.

Selma Sierra, who heads the BLM in Utah, said only 6 percent of lease parcels would ever see drilling because of the "costly and speculative" nature of the business. The federal government also typically imposes environmental safeguards on drilling parcels, Sierra said.

"Facts of the lease sale have been mischaracterized in the public forum, sowing confusion and misunderstanding," Sierra said.

Conservation groups had earlier sued, challenging 80 of the 132 lease parcels set to go up for bid, but the groups quickly reached an agreement with the BLM that allowed the auction to go forward, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

The agreement filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., stipulated that the government wouldn't issue leases on the 80 parcels for 30 days, giving a federal judge time to consider whether to block the leases.

More on: Robert Redford

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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