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.





Of Sanders and Glaciers, Wyoming Edition

Do glaciers have an influence on voting patterns in America? In this year’s unusual presidential campaign, analysts have examined many factors, such as age, gender, race, education or other demographic characteristics. But looking at the proximity to glaciers also merits consideration.

Last weekend’s caucuses in Wyoming suggest an association between glaciers and support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, much as the results from Washington state did last month. As the third most glaciated state in the US, after Alaska and Washington, Wyoming seems like a promising site to examine this possibility.

Because Wyoming has not yet released the complete tallies of voters in the caucuses, we are basing our analysis on the numbers of delegates from each county to the state Democratic convention, which are publicly available. The proportion of delegates for each candidate from each county is based on the proportion of voters in that county’s caucus who supported that candidate, so we can infer the voting patterns in each county from the numbers of delegates chosen there.

Using this information, we find that Sanders scored two percentage points higher on average in counties with glaciers than he did across the entire state.

Sanders performed well in Wyoming overall, receiving 55.7 percent of the vote, much as he has done in the other states with glaciers (Washington at 72.7 percent, Colorado at 58.9 percent, and Alaska at 81.6 percent). As we’ve noted, Clinton, despite her wins in a number of other states and her lead in the delegate count overall, has so far failed to defeat Sanders in a state with glaciers. The only exception is Nevada, in which she achieved a small majority, 52.6 percent. Since this state contains only one tiny glacier, Wheeler Peak Glacier, with an area just over 0.01 square kilometers, its results may not seriously challenge this possible relationship between glaciers and support for Sanders.

County map of Wyoming, with locations of major glacier ranges, Wind River, Teton and Absaroka indicated by their initial letters (source: USGS)
County map of Wyoming, with locations of major glacier ranges, Wind River, Absraoka and Teton indicated by their initial letters (source: USGS)

To explore this relationship in greater detail, GlacierHub examined the results at the county level in Wyoming. We focused on the state’s three most glaciated mountain ranges, the Wind River Range (55.8 square kilometers of glaciers), the Absaroka Mountains (9.6 square kilometers) and the Teton Range (6.9 square kilometers)  since we hypothesized that this association would be weaker for smaller glaciers.

We used this information to establish a set of four glacier counties (Sublette and Fremont, which lie on either side of the Wind River Range, Park for the Absaroka Mountains, and Teton for its eponymous range).  We use the term “non-glacier counties” for the other 19 counties in the state.

(source: Politico)
(source: Politico)

As the table included here shows, the glacier counties went more strongly for Sanders. These glacier counties gave him 57.7 percent of their delegate total, above the state average of 55.7 percent. Indeed, three of these four counties—Sublette, Park and Teton—chose 60 percent or more of their delegates for Sanders, placing them in the top third of the state’s counties for the proportion of Sanders delegates.

There was one glacier county in Wyoming where Sanders didn’t do better than he did on average across the state: Fremont County was one of the eight counties in which Sanders and Clinton were tied. Sheer geographical reasons might account for the relative weakness of this possible  glacier effect in Fremont County, since it is the largest of the counties, stretching furthest from the mountains and most extensively into the plains region in the eastern portion of the state. Moreover, it lacks the major national parks (Yellowstone in Park County, Grand Teton in Teton County) that could underscore the importance of the iconic white peaks. And other local factors may be at play. Laura Hancock, a reporter with the Casper Star-Tribune, described the county as follows in an email interview:  

Fremont County has two dynamics going on. It has the Wind River Reservation, home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. Leadership from both tribes endorsed Clinton. Bill Clinton has had a relationship with them since the 1990s. But the small city of Lander is also in Fremont County. Lander is at the base of the Wind River Range. It has a number of businesses and organizations in the town that are conservation-minded – the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wyoming Outdoor Council are the ones off the top of my head. Whenever I go to Lander and hang out it seems like there are a lot of young, white men – Bernie’s core group, I think. Granted, those organizations both employ women. I know women who work at both of those places. But generally speaking, Lander is sort of this town where there are a lot of people are drawn, a lot of people who love the outdoors and are so young, they may have been born during Bill Clinton’s second term and don’t really know who he is. So Sanders is inspiring them and the Clintons are these people from the vague past.

The association between glaciers and support for Sanders in the three counties might reflect factors other than the presence of glaciers. The three glacier counties that supported Sanders, taken as a set, have a higher proportion of white residents (92.6 percent), a demographic that has supported him, than the state overall (90.7 percent), while the proportion of white residents in Fremont County is only 74.3 percent. The tendency of urban voters to support Clinton may also be reflected in the fact that Fremont County has Riverton, the largest town in the four glacier counties. Clinton also performed well in the state’s two largest cities, Cheyenne and Casper, giving her a majority in the counties, Cheyenne and Natrona, in which they are located.

Idiosyncratic factors in these counties may also have influenced voting patterns in these counties. A Reddit user  commented that the Democrats in Sublette County supported Sanders because of their opposition to the extensive oil and gas operations there. Also, the strong turnout of young voters in the Park County caucus may have helped Sanders there.  

In an email to GlacierHub, Sarah Strauss, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming, mentioned the influx into Teton County of people from out of state, including celebrities like Harrison Ford and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who are drawn by its scenic beauty. She said, “One thing to know about Jackson Hole and Teton County is that though they are geographically located in Wyoming, they are really part of California/the West Coast in spirit–and, to a great extent, in demographics and political orientation as well.” 

It would be interesting to examine voting patterns community by community, rather than at the county level, but such information is not available for Wyoming. The Democratic Party in Wyoming, recognizing that their party has barely one-fifth of the registered voters in the state, decided to hold only one caucus per county, unlike the more numerous Republicans, who set up several caucuses in the more populous counties, allowing for finer-grained analysis of their voting patterns.

Caucuses and primaries, with hundreds of delegates at stake, will be held in the coming months in several other glacier states, including Montana, Oregon, and California. The results from these elections may shed light on this possible association between glaciers and voting patterns. In the meantime, Sanders supporters took pleasure that the glacier-rich state of Wyoming extended their candidate’s run of strong performances. His victory in that state was his eighth in the last nine contests— and his fourth victory in a state with glaciers.