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Critic Of Federal Public Lands Management To Join Department Of The Interior

Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen, recently named as Deputy Solicitor for Parks and Wildlife at the Department of the Interior, sits in her law office in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Mead Gruver
Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen, recently named as Deputy Solicitor for Parks and Wildlife at the Department of the Interior, sits in her law office in Cheyenne, Wyo.

A Wyoming property rights attorney who's long criticized what she calls federal overreach over public land management will take a position as one of the U.S. Department of Interior's top litigators.

The DOI confirmed in an email Monday that Karen Budd-Falen will join the agency as deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife.

Despite being a vocal opponent of federal lands policy, she told The Fence Post magazine she believes there are a lot of "good people" in Washington and she hopes she'll be able to bring the perspective of the West to the agency. "I think unless you've lived out here and tried to make a living on the land and really worked with people out here, I think you don't have the perspective," she said.

Budd-Falen had reportedly been considered as a finalist to lead the Bureau of Land Management. The bureau doesn't have a permanent leader under the Trump administration. She also served on the president's transition team after the 2016 election.

In Wyoming and elsewhere in the rural West, Budd-Falen has made a career of representing ranchers and local governments in property rights' disputes with federal land agencies. In the early 1990s, she worked as a consultant for a county in rural New Mexico that openly tried to challenge federal control of the land. And more recently she's traveled the rural West speaking to county commissioners about ways to have more local input in federal management decisions, appearances that occasionally draw protesters who support public lands.

The announcement has drawn swift criticism from environmental groups who have tried to tie Budd-Falen to the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion. That's the term given to a near-century-old loose association of ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands that argue, sometimes violently, that the federal government has no authority over the land.

Land Tawney, president of the Montana-based conservation group, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said Budd-Falen has a history of attacking the very agency she'll now join.

"We should be putting people into leadership positions that want to build and make things better, versus those that have spent a career trying to take them down," Tawney said.

The choice of such an outspoken critic of federal lands management for a top role in a federal lands agency is unusual, though not necessarily a surprise in the Trump administration.

Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke has repeatedly said he opposes any effort to transfer federal public land ownership into state control or private interests. It's unclear how much — if any — influence Budd-Falen might have when it comes to those decisions.

In a statement, the DOI said only that they were excited to have someone with such extensive industry experience joining the agency.

Budd-Falen did not immediately respond to a request for an interview. But as a deputy solicitor, she has said she expects to work on legal issues surrounding the Endangered Species Act, the National Park Service and national monuments. The Trump administration has dramatically reduced the size of several national monuments recently, including the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in Utah, where tribal groups and environmentalists have sued to block the plan.

Budd-Falen is originally from Wyoming, where she grew up on her family's fifth generation cattle ranch near Big Piney. This is not the first time she's worked at the Department of Interior — she was an appointee and served in the Reagan administration for three years, specializing mostly in mineral leasing.

She's expected to assume her new role at DOI in early November.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.