Cheyenne lawyer Karen Budd-Falen has spent three decades championing ranchers, ticking off conservationists and fighting the federal government. Next month, she’ll work for it, bringing no small controversy to a job that most people don’t spend much time thinking about: a legal counselor to the Interior Department on wildlife issues, endangered species and national parks.
Budd-Falen is best known for her legal career in the West, advocating for clients on sometimes hot button issues like grazing on federal land. Decades ago, she represented the Bundy family, who would stage an armed confrontation with law enforcement in 2014, and she was a leader in the county supremacy movement — which called for more local input on federal land management plans.
At a time when federal agencies are under special scrutiny, Budd-Falen’s resume has stoked fear that her views will help flip federal land management of wildlife and parks on its head.
But figuring out whether she is a friend, foe or something in between depends on who you ask. To Budd-Falen, people are mistakenly making assumptions about how she will do her job due to her work as a lawyer.
“This is how I made my living for 30 years,” she said. “When you are standing in court you’ve got your side that you want to present.”
On policy, you have to consider other views, she said.
Land and wildlife advocates say they have a list of reasons to be concerned about Budd-Falen. They’ve been on the other side of the table for issues they care about.
“Her appointment to this position is abysmal for the protection of wildlife, respect for sacred tribal lands and conservation of wild places that Interior is supposed to safeguard,” said Nada Culver, the Wilderness Society’s senior counsel, in a statement.
From the group’s point of view, Budd-Falen’s career has placed greater value on private property rights and ownership than on a shared conservation ethic for public lands.
Her dated connection to the Bundys has lit a fire under many who saw the family’s armed conflict as an affront to public lands, federal employees and Native American heritage.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Budd-Falen’s record with the law … calls into serious question whether she can be trusted to apply the law on behalf of the Department of the Interior,” Culver said.
Budd Falen has distanced herself from the more extreme elements in the federal land debate, recently, such as the Bundy family’s position on inherited grazing rights.
She represented the Bundys and other ranchers on an endangered species disagreement in Nevada around 1989, she said. Some years later the family stopped paying to graze cattle on federal land adjacent to their ranch. The dispute culminated in an armed confrontation in southern Nevada four years ago.
The allegation that Budd-Falen is a supporter of the Bundys or holds similar views is “completely unfair and inaccurate,” she said.
It was early in her career, when the family was still paying its grazing fees and operating legally, she said. To date, the Bundys’ claim that it has a right to graze without permits has not been held up by courts, whereas other issues of concern, like water rights on federal property, have, she argued.
“You have to stay within the system of the law,” she said.
The question of how extreme Budd-Falen’s views are on public lands is an open question. She argues that she’s not that unusual from a rancher’s perspective, minus the Bundys-ilk.
“It’s going to depend on who looks at it,” she said of judging her record. “If you’re talking about the general run of the mill ranchers that graze their cattle on federal land, they are going to tell you that I am completely within the mainstream.”
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said Budd-Falen has represented agriculture well over the years, from grazing issues to endangered species disagreements.
Her ascent to the Department of Interior is not as good as if she were to lead the Bureau of Land Management, but it’s nonetheless pleasing to the community she’s advocated for so successfully, he said.
Within the bounds of the law, Budd-Falen is taking her agriculture and private property rights background to Washington, he said. It’s not surprising that that would alarm some on the conservation side that have encountered her before, he said.
She’s ruffled feathers.
“One thing about Karen is her entire career, she’s been a fighter,” he said. “If she believes she’s right on something she is going to work very, very hard and not be too amenable to compromises that aren’t required.”
One of Budd-Falen’s key tenets, inside and out of the courtroom, has been local input on federal land management. Her position is not uncommon, but it can be inflammatory.
She’s been an advocate for local and state land use plans because they oblige the Bureau of Land Management to at least consider that input—- and where possible, find parity.
“Because Congress gave states and local governments that right, then I think you ought to take that,” she said.
There are those who have taken this view too far, she added, trying to oust federal presence in their counties or force federal agencies to adhere to their local decisions.
“You have to look at the language of the statute and the court cases and say, ‘How far?’” she said. ”I think some of the county supremacy people fall off the edge because they try to take it too far.”
Local input is not out of the mainstream in Wyoming, but it triggers concerns that public land advocates say are merited.
Online news site Wyofile reported last year, when Budd-Falen was considered a candidate for director of the Bureau of Land Management, that she was tied to some of the most extreme elements of the county supremacy movement. In the early ‘90s, Budd-Falen was a consultant on a land use plan in Catron County, New Mexico, that used language of revolution in its pages.
“Federal and state agents threaten the life, liberty, and happiness of the people of Catron County,” the plan states. “They present a clear and present danger to the land and livelihood of every man, woman, and child.”
Budd-Falen said her role at the Department of Interior will be to interpret the law, not craft policies. People are reading too much into her work as a lawyer, she said.
“I don’t think it’s fair to assume I’m going to think one way when you’ve never sat down across the conference room table and said, ‘You should consider these issues. You should consider it from this perspective,’” she said. “Unless you’re totally extreme on one side or the other, I think you’ve got valid points to make.”
There was a time when Budd-Falen was likely farther to the right than is mainstream today, said University of Wyoming professor Gregg Cawley, an expert on the Sagebrush Rebellion movement, who included the lawyer’s writing in a collection he put together years ago.
Budd-Falen isn’t one of the people arguing for taking over federal lands, but she is certainly of the group at odds with the federal government on many issues, he said.
As conservative politics have shifted to the right, Budd-Falen has become more middle-of-the-road, he said.
“Everybody talks about finding middle ground as if the middle ground exists out there on its own,” he said. “But in the real world of politics, the middle ground is determined by the extremes.”