This lawyer spent a career fighting the federal government over how it manages publicly owned land. Now she is joining the Trump administration in a department that controls more than 500 million acres of it.
Karen Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne, Wyo.-based attorney, has been hired to be the deputy solicitor at the Interior Department. In that role, the outspoken critic of federal land policy will help craft legal opinions concerning the department's management of wildlife and national parks.
“Karen Budd-Falen brings extensive industry experience to the Department, and we are excited to have her on our team,” Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in a statement.
Budd-Falen served as a political appointee at the department during the Ronald Reagan administration and also worked on President Trump's transition team. But she made a name for herself outside government by challenging it in court over livestock grazing rules and endangered species protections on behalf of ranchers and local governments out west.
Though her position does not require Senate confirmation, public lands advocacy groups eye her as among the most concerning appointees to join the Interior Department since Trump took office.
“Her history is there. We see what she stands for,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We know we're going to go head to head with Budd-Falen.”
In her new role she will help interpret for other department employees environmental statutes that she in the past has denounced in harsh terms. In 2011, for example, she told Congress that the Endangered Species Act has been “used as a sword to tear down the American economy.”
In perhaps her most high-profile case, Budd-Falen represented a Wyoming rancher who tried to sue individual employees working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the Interior Department, under a 1970 federal anti-racketeering law originally passed to crack down on organized crime. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected that application of the law.
But her most prominent former client is Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy. After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared a tortoise in the Mojave Desert endangered in 1989, BLM restricted grazing on hundreds of thousands of acres to protect the reptile. Budd-Falen represented Bundy and other ranchers who called the federal government's actions a “land grab.”
For years afterward, Bundy stopped paying grazing fees and ultimately, in 2014, got into a standoff with federal law enforcement officers who had repossessed Bundy's cattle. Bundy and his sons were later indicted on federal conspiracy charges only to have a federal judge dismiss those charges.
By then, Budd-Falen was no longer representing Bundy. Last year, she told E&E News that she stopped speaking to Bundy shortly after the tortoise case.
In the press, though, she still seemed to sympathize for the Bundys.
“The Cliven Bundy situation goes to show how American citizens react when a government has so expanded that it believes that the citizens are subservient to political power,” she told the Daily Caller, a conservative website, in 2014.
“As of late, she's trying to distance herself from the Bundy bunch,” said Land Tawney, head of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers who helped Ryan Zinke become interior secretary but who opposes Budd-Falen's appointment.
Budd-Falen, who did not respond to an interview request from The Washington Post, was originally considered to be Trump's BLM director. But last week she told The Fence Post, an agricultural news publication, that she did not want to sell her interest in her family's ranch as the department was asking her to do to take the job.
But that top BLM job, unlike the deputy solicitor post she did take, would have also required her to endure a tough Senate confirmation hearing in which Democrats would have had the opportunity to scrutinize her record.
"Now they're choosing to put her in a position where she doesn't have to go through confirmation," Tawney said. "Again, they're letting the fox into the hen house. It may not be BLM director but it's a pretty important position."
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