The Department of the Interior has selected Karen Budd-Falen, an anti-public lands advocate, for a senior legal position at the department. The move is controversial: Budd-Falen is an ally of right-wing extremist Cliven Bundy, who is best known for leading an armed 2014 standoff with federal officials in Nevada after he refused to pay his grazing fees.
Budd-Falen is a Wyoming-based property rights attorney who worked as a member of the Trump administration’s transition team for the Interior Department. She is scheduled to begin work on November 1 as the deputy solicitor for Parks and Wildlife working on issues related to endangered species, wildlife refuges, and national monuments.
The attorney had reportedly been previously considered to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But Budd-Falen withdrew her name from consideration for the top BLM spot in March, claiming the decision was made after she was asked to sell her interest in her family ranch.
Others contend she withdrew because her anti-public lands and anti-federal land management positions raised questions about her ability to pass Senate confirmation.
Controversial figure Karen Budd-Falen has been named deputy solicitor for wildlife & parks @Interior, according to @FencePostNews. Read our backstory when she was eyed for a position at @BLMNational: https://t.co/Gh3UF1bFp2
— High Country News (@highcountrynews) October 12, 2018
“Karen Budd-Falen is too extreme to be trusted with our national heritage,” Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said Monday in a statement. “Someone who sides with armed militia groups and anti-public land zealots should not have a high-level job at the Department of Interior.”
The Western Values Project, based in Whitefish, Montana, is a nonprofit group that focuses on protecting the environment and defending public lands in the western United States.
In November 2017, when Budd-Falen was being considered to head the BLM, she gave a talk in Montana that drew more than 100 protesters who picketed outside the event in the town of Hamilton; they hoped to call attention to her track-record of support for privatizing public lands.
— Kirk Siegler (@KirkSiegler) October 15, 2018
Among her many anti-environment views, Budd-Falen strongly opposes the Endangered Species Act, despite the law’s success. She has referred to it as a “sword to tear down the American economy, drive up food, energy, and housing costs and wear down and take out rural communities and counties.”
Budd-Falen also opposes the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law that requires extensive environmental review of infrastructure and other types of potentially harmful projects during the regulatory review process.
For decades, Budd-Falen has been a leading voice in the the so-called county rights movement, an offshoot of the fringe county supremacy movement that believes county sheriffs have ultimate authority over the federal government and can choose whether or not to enforce U.S. laws.
In 1989, Budd-Falen represented Bundy and his neighbors in a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the listing of the desert tortoise as an endangered species. Although she believed Bundy had broken the law by refusing to pay grazing fees, Budd-Falen stated that she “totally [got] what drove [Bundy] to do what he did” and predicted “I think you’re going to see more of that because we’re not left with any choice.”
Twenty-five years later, Budd-Falen insisted the BLM used too much force during the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff.
In April 2014, a group of armed Bundy supporters confronted BLM employees who were seeking to round up cattle that Bundy was allowing to illegally graze on public lands. The BLM ultimately caved into the armed gang, allowing Bundy’s cattle to illegally graze on the lands.
Like Bundy, Budd-Falen contends “the constitution requires the federal government to own only military and post offices” and does not give it the right to control government-owned lands or regulate what people do on these public lands.
The Bundy case isn’t the only time Budd-Falen has supported efforts to restrict BLM’s authority.
At a 2003 protest outside a BLM office in Wyoming, Budd-Falen suggested that western ranchers are “in a war” with the BLM and “if we don’t stand up and be counted, we’re going to lose that war.”
And in 2007, she represented a Wyoming rancher trying to sue BLM employees under federal racketeering laws for performing their job. Using a law intended to combat organized crime groups, Budd-Falen attempted — unsuccessfully — to sue several low-level BLM employees for implementing longstanding laws.
“If Budd-Falen had succeeded, it could have exposed all government employees to serial litigation for simply performing their jobs,” Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, wrote in a 2017 blog post. “Fortunately, she and her client lost the bizarre lawsuit unanimously in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Budd-Falen has also spoken at events featuring constitutional sheriffs, a group associated with the Bundys and their “county supremacy” ideology. This includes Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer who became a “heroic figure” among Bundy supporters after he sympathized with the Malheur refuge occupiers and allegedly asked two of the standoff’s leaders to sign his “pocket constitution.”
Budd-Falen also defended ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were sentenced in 2015 to five years in prison after illegally burning 140 acres of public lands in Oregon, which sparked the Malheur refuge occupation.
Earlier in her career, Budd-Falen served three years in the Reagan administration’s Interior Department as a special assistant to the assistant secretary for land and minerals management. She also worked as an attorney at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a far-right public interest group in Denver.
Budd-Falen also previously supported Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory’s (R) failed legislation in 2012 that demanded the federal government transfer control of much of Utah’s public lands to the state by 2015.
She said Ivory’s bill “could stand a chance constitutionally,” although her legal opinion was in direct contradiction to a report supported by 11 Western attorneys general that found that the “U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the Property Clause of the Constitution gives the U.S. government the right to own public lands.”
Budd-Falen’s views on public lands align with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other Trump administration officials. Under Zinke’s leadership, the Interior Department has emphasized the value of fossil fuel extraction and other industry endeavors on public lands.
Accessing oil, gas, and coal reserves, for example, were key factors in the decisions by the Trump administration to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.