Irony in Big Piney: On Karen Budd-Falen and the Wind River Glaciers

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s new pick for the department’s Deputy Solicitor for Fish, Wildlife and Parks is Karen Budd-Falen, a Wyoming-based property rights attorney known for challenging federal land policy. GlacierHub provides an ecological perspective on the glaciers, rivers and lakes of Budd-Falen’s home community in Big Piney, Wyoming.

Budd-Falen and the Wind River Glaciers

In remote Wyoming, the Wind River glaciers span 10,000 acres and contain over 100 different glaciers proliferated throughout the great continental divide, according to a recent study by Portland State University. The western slope glaciers, with names like Minor, Mammoth, Sourdough, Grasshopper and even Sacagawea, form the headwaters of Wyoming’s largest river, the nearly 4,000 square mile Green River BasinDownstream, the Green River meanders through the wilderness, flowing between public and private lands as it makes its way to the Utah border.

The Green River where it meets the Seedskadee National Wildlife Rescue (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Private, working ranches benefit from this glacial surplus in the Wind River Range. One ranch in particular, located in Big Piney, Wyoming, has been held by the same family for five generations. Budd-Falen calls this ranch home.

If you haven’t heard of Karen Budd-Falen, you’ve probably heard of her most notorious client, Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher at the forefront of the 2014 armed standoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over cattle grazing rights on federal land. Budd-Falen has repeatedly argued against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in court, and in favor of ranchers, landowners and corporations garnering unfettered rights for the private use of public lands.

Budd-Falen has also attempted to sue individual BLM employees under RICO for upholding federal law.

Bears Ears National Monument was reduced 85% by President Donald Trump on December 4, 2017 (Source: Creative Commons).

In her new DOI position, beginning 1 November, she will be an integral part of the DOI’s policy-making, working with the Justice Department to defend federal policy while providing counsel regarding legal issues surrounding government positions on public parks and wildlife policy.

Policy analysts are concerned she’ll endorse regulations undermining the Endangered Species Act, shrinking national monuments, and opening up more federal lands to oil, gas and mining industries.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Michael Burger, executive director for the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, commented there is nothing surprising about Budd-Falen’s appointment. It is “perfectly in line with what Trump has been doing with regards to appointments surrounding the environment. Choosing people who stand for the opposite of what the agencies missions are,” he said. Burger added that the appointment of Budd-Falen makes it clear that “Zinke is seeking to conduct a fire sale on the nation’s mineral rights to public lands.”

Irony in Big Piney

Glacier National Park in Montana (Source: Creative Commons).

Recently, Budd-Falen was hired to represent the Stillwater county commissioners in the Beartooth Front lawsuit, arguing against Montana landowners and their desire for citizen-initiated zoning. Citizen-initiated zoning is a process where landowners guide the development of their own land-use plans. In this case, it’s about the Montana landowners wish to guide the mineral rights on their own properties. However, now Budd-Falen represents the government’s desire for control over mineral rights.

Herein lies the dichotomy of Karen Budd-Falen. Above ground, her track record shows she solidly supports unrestricted private land use, especially for landowners, so they may go about their businesses without federal rules or intervention. Below ground, she works for the mineral rights owners, disallowing surface owners’ local input and opening these areas to the oil and gas industries.

Ironically, opening up Beartooth Front to oil, gas and mineral drilling and exploration may deposit dust or other particles on the surface of nearby glaciers in the Absaroka range. Should this drilling and exploration extend only a few hundred miles eastward, the debris have the potential to land on the same glaciers that feed the Green River Basin in Wyoming, and subsequently Budd-Falen’s own ranch in Big Piney.

Field studies have shown that a thin debris layer causes glaciers to melt faster, bad news for the Wind River Range of glaciers in Wyoming, which have already retreated nearly 40 percent since 1966.

Budd-Falen’s views and her stances on landowner and mineral owner rights have the potential to put her fifth-generation Big Piney home at risk. Because the glacial melt supporting her home community is a finite resource, accelerating glacial retreat through the inception of drilling, mining and natural resource exploration impacts the natural landscape and ecological viability of her ranch’s activities.

Interestingly, when Budd-Falen was originally being considered by the Trump administration for a top position in the DOI, she was asked to sell her ranch— which she refused to do so— quelling her early nomination. However, her ongoing defense of individual land and mineral right freedoms continues to jeopardize the Wind River glaciers’ capacity to support her family home into a sixth generation.





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