Ryan Zinke may be gone from the Interior Department, but he left plenty of foxes guarding the hen house. During his two years as secretary, Mr. Zinke never got around to filling several important Interior Department positions, but he did slip plenty of people into jobs that wield tremendous power over our public lands, wildlife and outdoor heritage.
One chief example is Karen Budd-Falen, the Interior Department’s deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife. This position is not subject to Senate confirmation, which meant that Zinke could get away with quietly appointing a radical like Budd-Falen right before he left the department. While not well known, the deputy solicitor has a great deal of influence on litigation and policy affecting our natural resources. The legal interpretations made by the deputy solicitor can literally mean life or death for endangered species and determine whether wildlife refuges and national parks will be opened up to oil and gas drilling and other inappropriate uses.
Budd-Falen is an odd choice to be the nation’s top legal advocate for fish, wildlife and national parks. A Wyoming lawyer, Budd-Falen has spent her entire career attacking public lands, the federal government, endangered species and public wildlife. As an activist-lawyer, Budd-Falen has represented some of the most extreme anti-public lands figures in the nation, including outlaw rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy is an extremist who doesn’t believe in the existence of the federal government and threatened armed violence against government employees who tried to stop him from decades of illegal cattle grazing on public lands.
Throughout her career, Budd-Falen’s legal arguments have almost never been held up in court. They just provide a soapbox for anti-government rhetoric and fuel disagreements between stakeholders, driving people apart instead of solving real problems.
She’s gotten less brazen in more recent years, adopting a more insidious strategy for privatizing public lands for personal and corporate profiteering at the expense of our outdoor heritage, wildlife and peaceful community prosperity. Prior to her being given a job with the federal government she disdains, her new approach has been taking her soapbox-for-hire on the road to individual counties conducting workshops targeting local government officials. She brought her six-hour land use workshop to Ravalli County Nov. 18, 2017, hosted by state Rep. Theresa Manzella at Hamilton Middle School.
The current Ravalli County commissioners have been acting on her advice ever since, forging ahead with Budd-Falen's coaching to beef up the county’s so-called natural resource policy, which presently only acknowledges trees as a natural resource and logs as a "use" for trees, and may be the proverbial example of "not seeing the forest for the trees." But that’s OK with Budd-Falen and the commissioners, even though Montana’s outdoor recreation and tourism economy of $7.1 billion and 71,000-plus jobs is not driven by folks wanting to experience stumps, no wildlife, polluted water and fish kills.
The question now is whether President Trump’s new director for Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, will continue Zinke’s destructive legacy or will work to defend public land, wildlife and taxpayer resources.
Every outdoor enthusiast should be paying close attention to Budd-Falen and the influence she has on how our public lands and wildlife are managed over the coming years. The fox is now "guarding" our chickens and colluding with local weasels across the country. Our responsible citizenship, quality of life and obligation to past and future generations requires our increased awareness and engagement in public policy efforts, and eternal vigilance. Mr. Bernhardt, no one is being fooled; it’s time to replace Budd-Falen with someone that respects life, appreciates the value of all life and is actually qualified for public service.
Jim Rokosch of Stevnsville is a former Ravalli County commissioner