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Candidate for BLM director joins legal team in Snake River ranch dispute

Rancher, Walter "Sonny" Riley sits atop his horse "Oly" on his ranch near Central Ferry earlier this month. Riley is involved in a land dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The lawyer representing a Pomeroy, Washington, rancher at the center of a legal dispute with the federal government has joined forces with one of the nation’s top rancher-rights advocates, who could soon become President Donald Trump’s pick to run the Federal Bureau of Land Management.

Karen Budd-Falen, who practices law with her husband, Frank, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, filed paperwork Friday with U.S. District Court in Spokane to help represent Walter “Sonny” Riley along with Riley’s current attorney, Toni Meacham, of Connell, Washington.

The attorneys have until March 22 to respond after the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane filed a civil action last month that is asking a federal judge to sanction Riley for “trespass, encroachment, damages.” The suit also seeks to make Riley pay the legal costs incurred by forcing him to abide by the rules on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property that is adjacent to Riley’s River Ranch near the closed Central Ferry State Park on the Snake River.

“Karen is a phenomenal attorney,” Meacham said of Budd-Falen. “She’s one of the top attorneys in the nation on federal ag issues. Why not get someone on the team that’s going to do a good job?”

Budd-Falen said she remains in consideration to be tapped by Trump to become the director of the BLM, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Interior under Secretary Ryan Zinke. In a move that sparked controversy, Zinke named Brian Steed as interim BLM director last November, according to the Washington-Post.

“I can’t say that moving to Washington (D.C.) from Cheyenne excites me,” Budd-Falen said. “But if I can help and have something to contribute to the Department of Interior, I’m willing to do that.”

As for the legal fight on the Snake River, Budd-Falen said she’s only been reading up on the Riley case since Friday and has not seen all the corresponding material. But she had read the 19-page complaint written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref that details years of interactions between Riley, 71, and federal land managers over the strip of unfenced land between existing railroad tracks and the ranch.

Asked why she agreed to take the case, Budd-Falen said she’s worked with Meacham, who is a rancher herself, on previous cases.

“Because I knew Toni and because she could really vouch for these people who weren’t the monsters the court record made them sound,” Budd-Falen said. “The complaint made them sound horrible.”

Attempts to reach U.S. Attorney Joe Harrington and Waldref were unsuccessful on Monday, a federal holiday.

According to the 19-page complaint, federal land managers accuse Riley of profiting from the use of the public land in question. The government’s case documents multiple interactions with Riley’s River Ranch employees dating back to 2011. It’s spelled out in a 19-page court document written by Waldref and filed last month in U.S. District Court.

It alleges that Riley and his employees “unlawfully” grazed, operated a “winter feedlot operation” and built unauthorized structures on federal land. It also alleges the ranch placed hay bales, feeders, machinery, debris, tires, manure piles, and “a pile of over fifty animal carcasses” on the disputed land.

In an interview earlier this month, Riley said the Army Corps bought the strip of disputed land in 1965 from his father, Lester Riley. But the Army Corps never put a fence on the entire border and he had over the years allowed cattle to graze it; the ranch also used it as a calving area.

Riley also said he’s offered to buy or lease the property in question. He and his nephew, Chad Lindgren, said they purchased 1,000 acres along the Tucannon River with the idea of trading the land to the Army Corps to settle their and other similar disputes with ranchers along the Snake River.

But the agreement fell through when a federal land manager said Riley and Lindgren would have to pay about $100,000 to study the proposed land trade.

“It appears to me that the government is being fairly heavy handed by all of the sudden saying, ‘We don’t want to try to work with you any more. We are just going to charge you,’ ” Budd-Falen said. “It does make me wonder why they are picking out the Rileys and not solving the underlying issue with all of the other ranchers in the same place.”

For example, the complaint goes into detail to describe the carcass pit and its proximity to the Snake River. A walking tour earlier this month discovered several scattered and bleached bones but no obvious pit.

Meacham said she has a letter from the Washington State Department of Transportation stating the agency was seeking a location to dump deer carcasses hit on nearby highways. State employees dug the pit in either 2002 or 2003.

“One of the supervisors asked Walter Riley for a spot to dump the dead deer,” Meacham said. “They even admitted that this went to the Army Corps of Engineers. As soon as the Corps had an issue, the Rileys cleaned it up.”

Representing Cliven Bundy

Budd-Falen once represented Cliven Bundy and a dozen other ranchers on a civil ranching dispute in the late 1980s. But she was quick to say that she had nothing to do with Bundy’s most recent legal donnybrooks.

Bundy has become the face of rancher-government disputes after he sparked an armed standoff outside Bunkerville, Nevada, when BLM employees rounded up Bundy cattle to remove them from public land.

The cattle had been rounded up under court orders issued over Bundy letting his herd graze for 20 years without paying government fees.

Bundy’s sons, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, were acquitted of federal criminal charges in Oregon after leading an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016 to demand the government turn over public land to local control.

Budd-Falen said she agreed 29 years ago to represent Cliven Bundy and the other ranchers after they were forced off their grazing allotments. She appealed the decision and got the ranchers back onto the public land.

“That was when he was still paying his grazing fees and had a grazing permit,” she said of Cliven Bundy. “That was the last time I represented him or actually have even spoken to him.”

Asked if the Bundy legal cases have helped or hurt ranchers’ causes, she said both.

“I think it’s highlighted some of the frustration that ranchers feel when the BLM refuses to legitimately work with them,” she said. “But it hurts that if it makes other ranchers think they can take the law into their own hands, which I completely disagree that they can.”

Budd-Falen left the family ranch that she and her sisters still own near Big Piney, Wyoming, and became a lawyer some 30 years ago to deal with land-use issues.

She tells her clients that if they don’t like a law or regulation that they need to work within the system to make changes.

“That’s the way the Constitution is set up to change a regulation you don’t like,” she said. “There is nowhere in the Constitution that says I get to be the Supreme Court and make up my own law as I go.”

Trump transition

Budd-Falen said it was “really a lot of fun” to work with the Trump transition team when the president took office.

“You got to work on ideas and thoughts from right after the president was elected to the date of the inauguration,” she said. “Our job was to look at rules and regulations and make suggestive changes. Some they really liked, and some got filed in the bottom of the stack.”

The rancher said she understands pushes in some sectors to turn federal land over to states or to sell it outright.

“First of all, Secretary Zinke said he would never do that,” she said. “There is talk about that, but I don’t think it’s in the cards. As a practical matter, I don’t know how that would work.”

Ranchers have been relying on grazing permits since 1934, and others have used public lands for everything from hunting to logging for much longer, she said.

“Should these lands have been transferred to the states when the states adopted their constitutions? That’s a fabulous legal exercise, but that’s not what happened,” she said. “Now you have 150 years and all these people who have become accustomed to all these multiple uses.

“You can’t really say, ‘We are not going to think about those guys,’ ” she continued. “There are massive practical considerations that I don’t think are being thought through.”