In the 1990s, a lawyer named Karen Budd-Falen drafted a land-use plan for a New Mexico county rejecting public ownership of national public lands. In the plan Budd-Falen writes, “Federal and state agents threaten the life, liberty, and happiness of the people of Catron County. They present a clear and present danger to the land and livelihood of every man, woman, and child.”
Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hired Budd-Falen to be the deputy Interior solicitor for wildlife and parks. Someone who has ardently opposed public ownership of public lands, served as a legal architect for the movement to transfer ownership of public lands, and made a living off filing frivolous lawsuits against the Department of the Interior (DOI) is now serving at one of the highest levels at the same department, thanks to Zinke.
Hiring Budd-Falen is one of many decisions Zinke made as Interior secretary that has left our public lands vulnerable not just to transfer, but also to seizure and exploitation by special interests.
Just how inappropriate it is for Budd-Falen to be working at the department might also be measured in the fact that she once represented Cliven Bundy, who in 2014 led an armed standoff against DOI law enforcement agents who were trying to round up Bundy’s cattle as payment for the $1 million in grazing fees he owed, and still owes, the American public.
In addition to Budd-Falen, Zinke has hired at least 10 people who come to the department having previously worked on behalf of the lands-transfer movement for the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity, and Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart – that is, the biggest and most powerful advocates for lands transfer in the country.
There are many other ways than transfer to sell out our public lands. One is by allowing special interests to call the shots on public land-management decisions, and that’s what Zinke allowed to happen. As he said in a keynote speech to the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association’s fall meeting, “Our government should work for you.”
As shocking as that statement is, it was, at least, an honest admission of how Zinke has conducted himself throughout his tenure as secretary of the Interior. He has limited, eliminated, or just plain ignored public input on public land-management decisions in favor of what special interests want.
Case in point: the Bureau of Land Management, which Zinke oversaw, announced last month that it would move ahead on a sale of oil, gas, and fracking leases on 10,000 acres of public land in southwest Montana, which includes parcels along two of Montana’s most revered blue ribbon streams – the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers. Unbelievably, the BLM made this decision after receiving thousands of comments against the lease sale and only one comment in support of it.
And just a few weeks ago, the Department of the Interior under Zinke announced it would open 9 million acres of public lands across the West to drilling, mining, and other development. Acting on bipartisan agreement that took years to hammer out and involved a wide range of stakeholders, including western governors, the Obama administration had set aside those 9 million acres to protect sage grouse habitat and keep the species off the endangered species list. Zinke simply ignored that agreement because that’s what oil and gas wanted him to do.
If you’re as appalled as we are at the public lands legacy Zinke has left us, please join us at noon in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena on Jan. 11 at the Rally for Public Lands, where we’ll let our elected officials and other decision-makers know that we will hold them accountable for selling out public lands, as Zinke has done.
The authors of this column: Roger Otstot, of Billings, is an Air Force veteran and retired economist who enjoys hiking and backpacking on public lands. Pat Tucker, of Hamilton, is an Army veteran and wildlife biologist. She backpacks, hikes, and skis on public lands. Ben Thomas, of Bozeman, is a 22-year Air Force veteran and small business consultant who advocates locally and nationally for conservation and open-space initiatives. Doug Okland, of Missoula, is a retired Marine who hunts, fishes, hikes and camps on public land.