HAMILTON — Karen Budd-Falen, an attorney who once wrote a land-use plan for a New Mexico county stating that “federal and state agents threaten the life, liberty and happiness" of the county's residents, will present her guidelines on land-use planning to Ravalli County residents on Saturday.
The Wyoming-based Budd-Falen — a potential nominee to direct the Bureau of Land Management who is perhaps best known for representing Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his fight over $1 million in grazing fees owed the BLM — was invited by state Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton.
“This is intended to be the community’s gift to our county commissioners, and we would hope that they would see it as such,” Manzella said, adding that Budd-Falen will tailor her presentation to the specific needs in Ravalli County regarding natural resource policies. “She’ll talk about coordination, consistency and collaboration.”
Manzella originally wanted Budd-Fallen to make a four-hour presentation to the Ravalli County Commissioners on ways to "add teeth" to the Bitteroot Valley Natural Resource Use plan adopted in 2012.
But the commissioners backed off after about a dozen residents objected, and Saturday's workshop — billed in an email as "specifically meant for county government officials and conservation districts" — will be held at the Hamilton Middle School and open to the public.
“I think it’s disturbing that she’s coming here,” Josh Osher, the Hamilton-based Montana director for the Western Watersheds Project, said last week. “They’re creating controversy where there isn’t any around these issues. The county isn’t having any difficulties in getting things done (on federal lands). It’s not a big issue in Ravalli County, so why would the commission go down this path?”
Budd-Falen sued Osher’s organization in a dispute involving crossing private lands to take water samples. Western Watersheds maintained it used public access roads. The suit was settled in 2016, with both sides claiming victory.
In a letter to Manzella, Budd-Falen wrote that a county with a land use policy can force federal agencies putting together documents like an Environmental Impact Statement to review whether it’s consistent with a local land use plan or growth plan. Ravalli County had a growth plan but repealed it in 2008, and while it has a Natural Resource Use Plan, that may or may not be what Budd-Falen means by a land use plan.
“The fact that the Forest Service is directed to ‘coordinate’ with local governments implies, by its plain meaning, that the Forest Service must engage in a process that involves more than simply ‘considering’ the plans and policies of local governments; they must attempt to achieve compatibility between Forest Service plans and local land use plans,” Budd-Falen wrote.
A 1992 land use and policy plan Budd-Falen drafted for Catron County, New Mexico, is considered to be a handbook for county supremacists and anti-public land extremists who have faced off in armed standoffs with public land managers and law enforcement.
The Catron County land use plan states, in part, that “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 …”
Last week, Crook County in Oregon approved a natural resource policy, using the advice of Budd-Falen. The county wants to assert more control over federal lands within its boundaries; opponents say it puts Crook County “front and center in an aggressive challenge of federal authority on public lands.”
She’s also aligned herself with anti-public land politicians in Utah, and is a vocal supporter of Bundy and other ranchers, arguing for them in a 1989 lawsuit that the government doesn’t have authority over public lands it manages. In 2007, she lost a lawsuit — after taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — filed on behalf of a Wyoming rancher, suing low-level BLM employees under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, for implementing existing laws on federal lands. The RICO act typically is used in fighting organized crime.
Although the Ravalli County Commission declined to host the meeting with Budd-Falen, they expressed interest in attending Saturday's workshop.
“I would probably try to attend,” said Commissioner Jeff Burrows, who added that it depends on whether his son’s football team is in the playoffs that day. “It’s my understanding the work session is to develop a land use plan. That was the biggest question I had — what would be in this land use plan and how it would integrate with our Natural Resource Use Plan.”
All of the commissioners agree that they have a good working relationship with the Bitterroot National Forest supervisor and district rangers. Yet Commissioner Greg Chilcott said he’d like to see the county have more of a say when it comes to federal policies that impact local citizens.
“You have citizens from around the United States, who have never been to Montana, who are deciding what happens here,” Chilcott said. “We are looking at having more say in the outcome.”
Burrows added that while the Bitterroot Forest hasn’t been sued over projects in recent years by environmental groups, the threat of legal action plays into every decision. He believes that sometimes projects are crafted to avoid lawsuits rather than what would be best for managing the forests.
“You can comment on a project whether you live in Tallahassee, Florida, or Victor, and you have standing with the Forest Service in the Bitterroot based on those comments,” Chilcott added. “I believe the local voices should be louder.”
He’s not attending Saturday's meeting due to a scheduling conflict, but Chilcott said he would be interested in hearing what Budd-Falen has to say.
“Karen Budd-Falen has a long career in public land issues, and anyone with that kind of experience has learned something,” Chilcott said. “Somebody who’s been through as much and seen as much as this woman is bound to be someone we can learn from.”
Osher and others fear, however, that Budd-Falen will encourage Ravalli County to join the effort to turn public lands over to the state, or even privatize them.
“I think Theresa Manzella is trying to promote something nobody wants, which is to turn public lands over to the private sector. That’s her goal,” said former county commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff, who also is a member of Bitterrooters for Planning. “Coordination, collaboration — those are weasel words. The Forest Service here in Ravalli County is run by people who are entirely approachable. There’s no need for the Nov. 18 meeting.
“The bottom line for all those folks is they don’t like public anything. Not public land ownership, not public schools — I think that’s the goal.”
Manzella said the presentation will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a break for lunch and one hour set aside at the end for public comments. She noted that the auditorium seats 250 and they’ve already sold 160 of the $10 tickets to the event.
Manzella said tickets for the event can be purchased by calling her at 546-9462 or Terry Nelson at 360-2941.