HAMILTON — A controversial land-use attorney drew more than 100 protesters and as many supporters to Hamilton Middle School Saturday, but the topic of her talk with county residents was interpreted differently by people attending the event.
Karen Budd-Falen, the Wyoming-based grazing-rights lawyer leading President Donald Trump's shortlist for Bureau of Land Management director, presented guidelines on land-use planning to Ravalli County residents.
Protesters characterized Budd-Falen as a supporter of privatizing public land, or at least supporting policies proven to lead to land sell-offs.
Budd-Falen, 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, was invited by state Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton.
Manzella described Budd-Falen as a "lawyer deeply seasoned in natural resource law and a fierce fighter for property rights due to be appointed as BLM director."
While the event was marketed by Manzella as a public meeting meant to open civil discourse, there was a $10 entrance fee. About half of the seats in the auditorium were empty.
In the 1990s, Budd-Falen represented rancher Cliven Bundy, known for later staging an armed standoff with federal authorities on his Nevada ranch in 2014, though throughout her presentation, the attorney sought to distance herself from the Bundys.
Blaze-orange vests and cardboard signs adorned with Theodore Roosevelt, who championed the establishment of public lands, lined the sidewalk up to the middle school where Budd-Falen was scheduled to speak. Protesters called for keeping public lands in public hands, and represented a number of conservation and outdoor recreation groups.
The protests were organized in part by the Montana Wildlife Federation. Bill Geer, MWF president, said Budd-Falen demonizes federal bureaucracy, but he said the bureaucracy actually helps public land users.
"Bureaucracy helps to protect public land because it makes it difficult for anyone to take it away," Geer said.
During her talk with county residents, Budd-Falen said she is “for less regulation.”
“I would like to get rid of bureaucracy and make decisions faster,” she said. “I’m not saying cut any analyzing of effects or issues, but there’s got to be ways to make these processes faster.”
Budd-Falen’s talk centered around having a more detailed county land-use plan that would be used to strengthen its own management desires carried out by federal agencies, including the Forest Service. She said that federal policymakers in Washington, D.C., were out of touch, and local governments could help guide more micro-level policies.
While Budd-Falen never spoke about public land transfer, state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, gave a presentation about her efforts to support federal land transfer to states. She said she had introduced legislation to protect land acquired by the state from private sale, but it was harangued by Democrats and vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock. Opponents said the legislation offered little protections, as it could be repealed freely once the land was acquired.
Alec Underwood, western field representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said Fielder’s argument that state-owned land is more economically vibrant was faulty.
“Saying they outperform federal land is like comparing apples to oranges,” Underwood said. “State lands are mandated to provide economic output, so naturally they are exploited, while federal lands are not. And when Fielder puts that legislative guarantee forward, it’s totally meaningless.”
Conservationists, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President Land Tawney, said the kind of policies Budd-Falen called for are already in use.
“What they’re proposing is what we already have, and it works fine,” Tawney said. “But her history of representing people who believe they should have private land rights to public grazing land is troubling. They said right off the bat they weren’t going to talk about public land transfer until protesters brought it up, but then they just happened to have this whole slideshow and presentation ready for it.”
Manzella reserved an hour at the end of the talk for public comment, split into a half hour each for proponents and opponents.
Jim Rokosch, executive director of Bitterrooters for Planning and former county commissioner, said he was disappointed to be segregated into the “opposition” group for public comment.
“I’m certainly a proponent of land-use planning, so I was torn about which group I belonged in. Planning is in the name of our organization after all,” Rokosch said after the talk. “That was a disservice to the audience by Rep. Manzella. Why set it up as us against them? We’re humans, we’re Americans, we’re land users. We need to start putting our heads together instead of banging our heads together.”
Much of the Budd-Falen’s talk and audience questions centered around fire management and the effects smoke had on residents last summer. Budd-Falen criticized the “let it burn” policy that has become more popular among foresters who see forest fire as a natural process.
Audience members said silica and mercury in fire smoke were killing them, and blamed federal mismanagement for the amount of smoke this summer.
Manzella originally wanted Budd-Falen to make a four-hour presentation to the Ravalli County Commissioners on ways to "add teeth" to the Bitterroot Valley Natural Resource Use plan adopted in 2012. But the commissioners backed off after about a dozen residents objected.