Public Lands Critic to Oversee Fish, Wildlife and Parks


WASHINGTON, DC, June 11, 2019 (ENS) – The Secretary of the Interior keeps illegally shuffling political officials into jobs requiring Senate confirmation, according to a legal complaint filed today by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

On May 23, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the 27th version of an order delegating duties of presidentially appointed positions to a series of acting officials.

The latest move places a Wyoming property rights attorney who has long criticized what she calls “federal overreach over public land management” to the position of Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, overseeing all Department of the Interior actions by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

Karen Budd-Falen addresses a panel of sheriffs from Alturas, California, August 2012 (Screengrab from video by Robert Exter)

In this latest order, Bernhardt taps Karen Budd-Falen for the role of Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Budd-Falen has spent her career challenging the legitimacy of federal wildlife protections in addition to fighting grazing regulations and other land use authority as part of the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion.

“Karen Budd-Falen is too extreme to be trusted with our national heritage,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the nonprofit Western Values Project. “Someone who sides with armed militia groups and anti-public land zealots should not have a high-level job at the Department of Interior.”

Budd-Falen has represented armed militia leader and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay grazing fees and treated public lands as his private rangeland. She also supported Utah state Representative Ken Ivory’s failed land grab bill, believing it “could stand a chance constitutionally.”

Her opinion on this issue is in contradiction to a report supported by 11 Western attorneys general which 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….”

“Putting Karen Budd-Falen in this position is like putting Genghis Khan in charge of a day care center,” said PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins, pointing out that she was previously slotted into an Interior deputy solicitor job that required no Senate review.

“Since David Bernhardt knows Budd-Falen is so right wing that she could never be confirmed for the job he just gave her, this maneuver only underlines the administration’s continuing contempt for the Senate’s constitutional advice and consent prerogative,” Jenkins said.

Budd-Falen has been described as “a darling of the original Sagebrush Rebellion,” the 1970s movement that pushed for major changes to federal land control. Supporters of this movement wanted more state and local control over these lands, or outright transfer of them to state and local authorities and private citizens.

By 1991, “Newsweek” reported that Budd-Falen had “become the hired gun of choice for ranchers facing court action from federal agencies.”

Budd-Falen grew up as a fifth-generation rancher on a family-owned ranch in Big Piney, Wyoming and received her undergraduate degrees and her law degree from the University of Wyoming. She began her career in the Reagan administration, serving in the Department of the Interior as a special assistant to the assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

sagebrush steppe
Craters of the Moon National Monument on the Snake River Plain in central Idaho shelters native plants and animals on its sagebrush steppe. This site is near the western boundary of the monument near Lava Lake. June 29, 2009 (Photo by Matt Lavin)

Budd-Falen began working against environmental restrictions with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit, public interest law firm that litigates against the land use decisions of Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The firm has been described as being affiliated with Alexander Koch, a partner in the King & Spalding law firm, which represents Chevron/Texaco in its attempt to avoid paying a US$9 billion judgment by Ecuador’s courts over oil pollution on indigenous lands.

Budd-Falen is the fourth person to temporarily fill this job under former Secretary Ryan Zinke or David Bernhardt, although President Donald Trump’snominee for Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Robert Wallace, is now going through the Senate confirmation process. Wallace is a Wyoming resident, a former energy company lobbyist and a Capitol Hill veteran.

The White House’s aversion to the nomination process has also left the offices of the directors of the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) vacant. No nominees are even pending for those key leadership roles two and a half years after President Trump was inaugurated.

At this point, the Department of the Interior has far more low-level political appointees in its top positions than it has officials who have been confirmed by the Senate.

PEER has filed a series of complaints about the illegality of these attempts to circumvent Senate confirmation, the latest filed today with the Department’s Inspector General concerning actions that were claimed to have been taken by the “BLM Director” when that position was vacant.

Decisions being made by improperly acting officials may invalidate the legitimacy of Trump’s months-long effort to undo protections across six states for the sage grouse in order to facilitate oil and gas drilling.

Today, PEER also filed a lawsuit against Secretary Bernhardt’s office for failure to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests seeking communications about his efforts to keep in place lower-level political appointees who violate requirements of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to properly fill an “acting” designation.

“David Bernhardt is running Interior through a succession of shadow puppets,” complained Jenkins. “Not only does the Senate lack an opportunity to question these people in open session but Interior is refusing to produce the paper trail explaining how and why these illicit acting officials got elevated.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2019. All rights reserved.


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