Budd Falen: Standing Up for Rural Constituents


Karen Budd Falen was the Deputy Solicitor for Parks and Wildlife in the Department of Interior for three years, and she left with the rest of the Trump administration, capping off a notable career in opposing public lands.  She appears to come by that view honestly, being raised on a Wyoming ranch and representing ranchers as an attorney (including the Bundys).  She reflects in this short piece on her legacy of changing the Endangered Species Act regulations and National Environmental a Policy Act regulations to promote more “local control” (as well as with the Land and Water Conservation Fund).

I take issue with her arguments in both cases that the laws the regulations implement (ESA and NEPA) were intended to allow social and economic considerations to play the role she has provided for them.  These statutes are both clearly aimed at the “natural environment,” and not local “custom and culture.”  Remarkably, she appears to admit that, “the listing of a species should be based only on science,” but then she has made it harder to do that with various changes in the ESA implementing regulations (which go beyond those she describes here in relation to critical habitat).

My fundamental disagreement with her and those she represents concerns this statement (and I suspect it may be a reason for differing opinions on this blog):

In my view, local elected officials should have more sway on issues directly affecting them than someone from midtown New York who has never faced the realities of making a living from the land.

The major gloss-over here is that endangered wildlife and federal lands don’t belong more to local people and their elected officials.  Her view that local interests should have more influence is not supported by either of these laws, and it is not the view held by most of the people that these resources do belong to.  Should the Biden administration not reverse these regulations, courts will have another opportunity to slap down the misinformation from her, and organizations she has worked for like the Mountain States Legal Foundation, that has led to ideas like “county supremacy” limiting how national forests are managed.

(Here is a little background from just before Trump decided she could not get confirmed as BLM Director.)

8 thoughts on “Budd Falen: Standing Up for Rural Constituents”

  1. Thanks for posting this Jon; I’ll give it a closer read later.
    They’re called “NATIONAL Forests” because they benefit the entire nation. Thus, each person in the US has the right to weigh in on how they’re managed.
    I understand the concerns of local residents and elected officials having living & worked for many years in rural, resource dependent communities.
    Went on many USFS show me trips with District Ranger and county commissioners to show them how many timber sales would be offered in the 5 Year Timber Sale Plan. That process always irked me a bit because my role on the district was to also think about the needs of people from nearby urban areas and their interests in NF land.
    Do local folks always know better? Always do the right thing to benefit their community? We only have to look at the past year of response to the Covid pandemic to know that in some cases the answer is Yes and in many cases the answer is NO!
    IMO, a common thread in poor response to Covid and pushing NF land too hard to produce 2×4’s, sides of beef or whatever other commodity is a disregard for science and what the evidence shows are prudent ways to behave.

  2. Ms. Budd Falen has a distinctly different world view from many natural resource professionals, who dedicate their education and training towards the improvement and sustainability of the public lands they are responsible for. She has also made a lot of money espousing this world view to those who want to use public lands for short term gains. The problem with giving more control to local elected officials are (1) they are elected by local constituents but also want administrative control over lands that belong to interested parties outside their jurisdiction and (2) they rely on their own experience (as well as previous generations) for decision making with almost a disdain for any non-local informed opinion/perspective that is relevant to the issue(s) in their jurisdiction. Making living off public lands is a tough business and the local perspective must be part of the deliberation. But, as has been referred to numerous times in this forum, timber management on National Forests is inherently more complicated (difficult?) than private timberlands. So, the difficulty of managing public lands, as well as basing a business on public land use, cuts both ways.

    This is another emphasis to the enduring conflict of the “Sagebrush Rebellion”.

  3. As for me, this statement
    “In my view, local elected officials should have more sway on issues directly affecting them than someone from midtown New York who has never faced the realities of making a living from the land.”

    If we switched the landownership to the Shell Corporation, (or even Weyco), would we say that it is justice for local people to have no voice due to the legalities of property ownership in the US?

    I am no fan of Budd Falen but I think the conversation has to be more nuanced than “all Americans own it so all Americans have an equal voice.”

    • In your hypothetical, one difference would be that state and local laws and regulations would also control what the landowners can do, which only the local people would have a voice in.

      The reality is that local people have a greater opportunity to try to influence local federal decision-makers, including through their congressional representatives, so the I think the conversation needs to be how to level the playing field.

      • But that’s not necessarily the case.. for example in Colorado, there are more people in urban areas who can determine what happens in rural areas.

        And if we get to Congressional representatives, it depends on how powerful their particular representative is.. and if their party has any power at the time, and how willing the party is power is to negotiate, and so on.

        I like the idea of “leveling the playing field”, I will ask around the political science folks I know and see if they think of things this way.

    • No, but that’s always a difficult challenge to parse out .. did they listen to what group x said and make a different decision, or did they not listen to group x? Certainly say in response to comments, feds write up how they respond – so they must have “listened.” This goes both ways vis a vis administrations.

  4. I first encountered Budd when I was a district ranger on Bighorn NF (1977-84). She certainly made a ripple in WY due to her outlandish assertions about “federal supremacy” and the role of states in taking back federal land. I don’t think she ever changed her ideology (well, maybe she became more extreme), but she did embolden many other reactionaries. Reagan’s appointments of folk like James Watt (DOI Secy), Ann Burford (EPA), her rancher husband Bob Burford (BLM Dir) presaged other individuals like Budd actually working their way into govt. I believe we have a fundamental problem when agency leaders don’t even believe in the legitimacy or authority of the agencies they lead.


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