LAST AUCTION HERO 

A federal jury on Thursday convicted 29-year-old eco-activist Tim DeChristopher of two felonies, punishing him for disrupting a federal land auction in the waning days of President George W. Bush's administration. DeChristopher won bids totaling $1.79 million for more than 22,000 acres near two Utah national parks during the December 2008 auction, but he didn't have the money to pay for it. His bids were meant to drive up the prices so oil and gas companies couldn't buy the land, which environmentalists argue was being illegally sold in the first place.

DeChristopher was convicted Thursday in Salt Lake City, where jurors found him guilty on two felony counts: interfering with and making false representations at a government auction. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $750,000 at his sentencing hearing, scheduled for June 23. "We know that now I'll have to go to prison," DeChristopher told his supporters outside the courthouse Thursday, including some celebrity environmentalists such as Daryl Hannah and Peter Yarrow. "If we're going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well." DeChristopher has explained that he didn't have any malicious intent in disrupting the auction, but simply wanted to protect the pristine wilderness around Arches and Canyonlands national parks (pictured above). The 131 parcels of land had been put up for sale on election day in 2008, leading critics to accuse the Bush administration of offering the leases as gifts to its supporters. But prosecutors countered that the trial was simply about DeChristopher breaking the law, and that neither the federal government nor "Big Oil" were on trial.

But weeks after the 2008 auction, a federal judge halted the sales that had been made to oil and gas companies, ruling that the Bush administration didn't follow proper procedures in putting the land up for sale. The Obama administration later voided most of the leases in 2009, seeming to vindicate DeChristopher. But the judge in this week's case ruled that DeChristopher's attorneys couldn't raise the issue of civil disobedience, or even mention the history of the leases as a defense for his illegal bids. 

(Sources: Salt Lake City Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Reuters)

INGLORIOUS 

A rocket carrying NASA's $424 million Glory satellite failed to reach orbit early Friday morning, the space agency announced, dealing a major setback to its climate-studying research. The Taurus XL rocket lifted off at about 2:10 a.m. from California's Vandenburg Air Force Base, but a protective shell known as a "fairing" didn't separate from the satellite like it was supposed to, preventing the rocket from building up enough speed to escape Earth's gravity. 

"The flight was going well until the time of fairing separation," NASA launch commander George Diller tells the AP. "We did not have a successful fairing separation from the Taurus and there was insufficient velocity with the fairing still on for the vehicle to achieve orbit." Glory isn't the first climate-studying satellite that hasn't lived up to NASA's expectations — another one that also aimed to join the agency's Earth-observation network crashed into the ocean near Antarctica in 2009. It was flying on the same kind of rocket that carried Glory, and an accident board was created afterward to investigate and prevent future problems. A redo of that launch is now scheduled at Vandenburg in 2013.

Glory was designed to study miniscule particles in the atmosphere called aerosols, which reflect and trap sunlight on Earth. Most aerosols occur naturally, from sources such as volcanoes, wildfires and dust storms, but they also are emitted by manmade sources such as burning fossil fuels. A recent study found that airborne particles of dust increased during the 20th century, possibly due to large-scale desertification in Africa and Asia — and potentially worsened by climate change.

(Sources: AP, Reuters)

MAZDA SPIDERS 

If you drive a Mazda6, you probably don't have to worry about things like Toyota's unintended acceleration or Honda's stalling engines, but you may have your own unique problem to deal with: yellow sac spiders. Mazda is recalling more than 65,000 of its midsize Mazda6 sports sedans due to a widespread arachnid infestation, the Japanese automaker announced this week. 

Drivers most likely won't find themselves suddenly swarmed by small, pale-colored spiders, but that doesn't mean the situation should be taken lightly. The yellow sac spiders, from the genus Cheiracanthium, apparently are building webs in the cars' vent lines, which could build up enough pressure to crack and leak fuel if they're completely blocked. It would take a prolific web-slinger to fully block the vent lines, but in the wake of other high-profile recalls, Mazda isn't taking any chances. Since the webbing could cause fires, the automakers is issuing a recall of 52,000 Mazda6 cars from the U.S., plus another 15,000 from Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Owners will be contacted individually in the next two weeks, but the problem seems to be concentrated to 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder models built between April 2008 and February 2010. No V6 engines are known to be affected.

Mazda has tried to smooth over the PR crisis with humor, with one spokesman joking to reporters that "perhaps yellow sac spiders like to go 'zoom-zoom'?", a reference to the company's marketing slogan. The real reason the spiders like the Mazda6, however, is less flattering, an automotive journalist in Japan tells Reuters. "While it's very rare, this spider's distinguishing characteristic is that it likes the smell of gasoline, caused by the hydrogen oxide," says Mitsuhiro Kunisawa. "Once it smells the gasoline from outside, it will go inside. In the United States, it's a relatively common type of spider."

(Sources: Christian Science Monitor, CNNMoney, Reuters)

TRUFFLE SCUFFLE 

Black truffles are famously delicious and infamously hard to grow, but as the New York Times reports, two very different entrepreneurs in North Carolina are having a go at the finicky fungi — and each other. The two warring truffle growers have sued and countersued each other over a variety of disputes, highlighting how potentially lucrative and enormously frustrating the practice of cultivating truffles still is, even after centuries of effort.

In one corner is 59-year-old Franklin Garland, a relatively eccentric truffle enthusiast who runs Garland Gourmet Mushrooms and Truffles with his wife in Hillsborough, N.C., and also started the National Truffle Fest in Asheville three years ago. In the other corner is Susan Rice Alexander, a wealthy newcomer to the area who first got into truffles after visiting Garland's farm in 2007. She bought 6,000 trees from Garland that were specially inoculated with truffle spores, spending $100,000 to launch a truffle-growing business on a former tobacco farm she owns. Garland argues she also promised to buy 20,000 more of the trees — whose root systems form the precise habitat the truffles need to survive — but that she later reneged, leaving him with more trees than he could sell. The two are now locked in a serpentine legal battle over who owes who what, as both try to take the lead in an emerging agricultural market that has confounded would-be truffle farmers for generations.

Black truffles can sell for $800 a pound, but they grow under bizarre circumstances underground that no one has quite managed to master. Even Garland and Alexander both struggle to produced consistent crops, and while they tell the Times they have ambitions of making truffles a food for the common man, the culinary community around North Carolina remains skeptical. "Yeah," one Chapel Hill cookbook author and teacher says, "and we've learned to spin straw into gold, too."

(Source: New York Times)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Hernando Cortez invades Mexico, nuclear power comes to Antarctica, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Canyonlands National Park): U.S. National Park Service

Illustration (NASA's Glory satellite): NASA

Photo (Mazda6 midsize sports sedan): ZUMA Press

Photo (black truffle): Wikimedia Commons

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