Wyoming-based attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who is vying to lead the Bureau of Land Management, recently suggested that ranchers who believe federal grazing permits give them ownership of the land make "good arguments," but she stopped short of endorsing the concept pushed by Cliven Bundy and others.
Budd-Falen, who has met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and could be nominated to head BLM, made the remarks at a recent forum in Hamilton, Mont., that focused on land-use planning in Ravalli County, Mont.
The Western Values Project provided transcripts and several hours of audio recordings of the event to E&E News (Greenwire, Nov. 22).
During her remarks, Budd-Falen highlighted private property rights, spending several minutes discussing water rights across Western states before briefly touching on grazing permits.
"I know that there are scholars that argue that your grazing use on your grazing allotment is private property," Budd-Falen said. "I’ve heard the arguments."
Budd-Falen declined to say whether she agrees, however, noting that no federal court has ruled to date on the question of whether grazing permits translate to private property rights.
"I think you’re making good arguments, but I can’t tell you that the court is going to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ because nobody’s ever asked the question to a court to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ So I’m not going to opine one way or the other," Budd-Falen said.
Alec Underwood, the Montana Wildlife Federation’s western Montana field representative, later asked Budd-Falen to clarify whether she would treat grazing leases as private property in the event she is confirmed to head BLM.
"As director of the BLM, I don’t have that authority," Budd-Falen responded. "If somebody brings a court case and it says they’re private property, then I’m going to follow whatever the court tells me to do. We don’t have that case yet."
She added that since grazing leases are not a contract, ranchers do not have contractual rights to the land, nor is there a property interest in the forage eaten by cattle and other animals.
"If you don’t want to pay a grazing fee, I think you ought to follow the federal legal process and make your argument in court, to Congress to make a change," she said.
Another questioner sought to put Budd-Falen on the spot about whether she would seek to reduce or eliminate fees for grazing or extractive uses if she were to be confirmed at BLM.
"I’m going to follow the statutes. This isn’t a personal opinion. You’re asking me to have an opinion on something that the federal statutes don’t allow me to have an opinion on," she said.
She later added: "If Congress says we’re going to charge you a user fee, I’m going to enforce the will of Congress."
‘We own the grazing rights’
But in the wake of her recent remarks, conservationists noted that Budd-Falen appeared at two conferences this year that also featured Range Allotment Owners Association Executive Director Angus McIntosh.
McIntosh, an advocate of the concept of grazing allotments as property rights, was described in literature for the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition’s conference this spring as a "sought-after range-management conservationist, economist, and property, water and split-estate historian."
"Grazing allotments are private property — they are split estates," McIntosh told the publication The Fence Post in December 2016. "The government owns the mineral rights and the commercial timber rights and the rancher owns valuable land for grazing and stock water rights."
BLM manages 258 million surface acres of public lands including livestock grazing on 155 million acres of the federal estate. According to BLM statistics, the agency administers nearly 18,000 permits and leases on more than 21,000 allotments.
Both Budd-Falen and McIntosh were also listed as speakers at the National Federal Lands Conference’s Range Rights and Resource Symposium in Nebraska earlier this year.
The concept of grazing rights conferring private property rights over rangeland is also embraced by Bundy and his family, who have asserted quasi-ownership of public lands that surround the family’s 160-acre ranch.
Bundy and his sons Ryan and Ammon are currently on trial in Las Vegas on charges stemming from a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents. The incident was sparked when BLM attempted to impound Bundy’s cattle over more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and related fines.
"I’ll tell you what, this case has nothing to do with the grazing fees," Ryan Bundy, who is serving as his own attorney, recently told jurors in the federal trial earlier this month. "You don’t pay rent when you own your home. That lands belongs to the people of the state of Nevada. We own the grazing rights" (E&E News PM, Nov. 15).
No ‘Bundy family lawyer’
During her seminar in Hamilton, Budd-Falen also accused a questioner of trying "to trick me into something so you can have a big Cliven Bundy headline."
It was one of several instances in which she referenced the Nevada rancher during the event. At another point, Budd-Falen also mocked a local newspaper headline that identified her as the "Bundy family lawyer."
Prompted by Montana state Rep. Theresa Manzella (R), who organized the event at which Budd-Falen spoke, the Wyoming attorney recalled what she described as her sole interaction with Bundy.
Budd-Falen outlined her work with a group of Nevada ranchers to retain their seasonal grazing allotment following the designation of the Mojave population of the desert tortoise as an endangered species in the late 1980s.
Following that successful appeal, many ranchers sold or traded grazing allotments under a Clark County habitat conservation plan. Bundy and his family opted not to participate (Greenwire, Oct. 6).
"I have not spoken to Cliven Bundy since. The only time I represented him, the only time I talked to him, I haven’t been involved with him since," Budd-Falen said. "The whole headline makes it sound like I was involved. Obviously if I was involved in the criminal case I wouldn’t be here."
Bundy subsequently refused to pay his grazing fees and lost court battles that ordered him to remove his cattle from federal lands.
"I didn’t have anything to do with any of that stuff," Budd-Falen said of Bundy’s decisions.