In 2018, natural resources attorney Harriet Hageman ran for governor of Wyoming on a pledge to “reform federal land management and access” and fight burdensome federal regulations.
Public lands were a hot-button issue in midterm elections across the West that year. Hunting and conservation groups had rallied to defeat an anti-public lands bill a year earlier, introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), that would have sold off 3.3 million acres of federal land in 10 Western states, including Wyoming. And the Trump administration was advancing its assault on public land and environmental protections — what ultimately proved to be the most anti-conservation record of any administration in history.
In August 2018, the conservation group Wyoming Wildlife Federation hosted a candidate forum for the state’s gubernatorial race. When asked about her vision for federal land management, Hageman voiced her support for transferring control of public lands to states, beginning with 1 million acres in Wyoming as part of a pilot project, High Country News reported at the time.
Hageman’s comment caused a stir within Wyoming’s hunting, outdoor recreation and conservation communities. After the forum, the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance, then a rising hunting and public lands advocacy group, endorsed Mark Gordon, Hageman’s opponent, and the current Republican governor. The group cited the candidates’ views on public land transfer in its decision, according to High Country News.
Hageman ultimately placed third in the primary field, securing just 21% of the vote to Gordon’s 33%. Dwayne Meadows, who at the time was executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, told HuffPost that Hageman and other candidates’ hostility toward public lands swung the election in Gordon’s favor.
“I think it did influence it,” he said of the outcome. “I really do.”
Four years later, Hageman is back on the campaign trail, running to oust GOP Rep. Liz Cheney. Only this time, her record and views on the federal estate are barely part of the discussion. Instead, the race has largely become a referendum on former President Donald Trump and Cheney’s participation on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“The voters in Wyoming are so enamored with Trump that anybody who attacks him, such as Cheney has, that becomes the central issue, where all of a sudden people aren’t thinking about what else Hageman would bring to the plate,” said Cheyenne resident Earl DeGroot, a self-declared moderate Republican, sportsman and member of Keep It Public, Wyoming, a coalition of public lands advocates.
“This entire race is boiling down to Cheney’s work on the Jan. 6 committee,” he added. “I think there’s a lot at stake, and people aren’t looking at the issues.”
Public lands and how to manage them is a huge issue in Wyoming, as it is in all Western states where the federal government owns a large percentage of land. Nearly half of Wyoming is federally owned and its outdoor recreation industry generates approximately $4.5 billion annually in consumer spending. A survey by Colorado College earlier this year found that 88% of Wyoming residents consider issues involving clean water, wildlife and public lands when deciding who to support for elected office. Additionally, 78% said they’d visited national public lands more than twice in the past year, and 71% said they support creating more protected federal sites.
John Gale, conservation director at Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said public lands are “critically important” for hunting, fishing and outdoor access and have been a “unifying force” in recent years. But in Wyoming and elsewhere, false claims of a stolen 2020 election have sucked the oxygen out of the room, he said.
“In a place like Wyoming, public lands used to feature prominently,” Gale said. “The politics of the day have distracted from those issues, so they are not even a focus at all. And I think it’s disheartening to see this loss of focus on really important issues that impact people back home.”
For three decades, Hageman has been sparring with environmentalists, suing federal agencies over land use decisions and advocating for transferring control of federal lands to states. It is a record of anti-conservation, anti-government zealotry that once earned her the nickname “Wicked Witch of the West” among environmentalists — a title she embraced.
Come next year, Hageman could be Wyoming’s new at-large congresswoman and, if she has it her way, a member of the House committee with jurisdiction over energy development, public lands and wildlife. Polls have shown Hageman with a commanding lead over Cheney. The winner of the GOP primary on Aug. 16 is all but guaranteed to sail to victory in the November general election.
“This entire race is boiling down to Cheney’s work on the Jan. 6 committee. I think there’s a lot at stake, and people aren’t looking at the issues.”
First and foremost, Hageman has tied her Senate bid to Trump — a move that has required a dizzying level of flip-flopping. In 2016, Hageman called Trump “racist and xenophobic” and worked unsuccessfully to strip him of the Republican presidential nomination. Now vying for Congress in a dark red state, she is touting her endorsement from Trump, calling him “the greatest president of my lifetime” and vowing “to do everything in my power to Make America Great Again — Again.”
Hageman has also followed Trump and Republicans’ lead in viciously attacking Cheney for her efforts to hold Trump accountable for inciting the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.
“We’re fed up with the Jan. 6 commission and those people who think that they can gaslight us,” she shouted at a “Save Wyoming” rally with Trump in June, drawing uproarious applause. “And we’re fed up with Liz Cheney.”
The same year that she condemned Trump, Hageman endorsed Cheney’s congressional bid, calling her a “friend” and a “proven, courageous, constitutional conservative,” as CNN’s KFile reported. She also decried “concerted efforts to force true conservatives to sit down and shut up” before adding, “those efforts have never worked on me and I know that they will not work on and have no effect on Liz Cheney.”
With Hageman, Wyoming would get more than a loyal Trump convert to replace a top nemesis of Trump who, as Hageman correctly forecast in 2016, hasn’t backed down in the face of monumental pressure from her party. They would also get a 59-year-old lawyer and rancher who was carrying the anti-environment, anti-government torch and denying the clear realities of climate change long before Trump ever came along.
“I have been fighting for you, and winning, against the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture,” Hageman said at the June rally.
Hageman’s campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for an interview.
Proud Environmental Foe
Hageman grew up on a ranch outside Fort Laramie, in eastern Wyoming, and graduated with a law degree from the University of Wyoming in 1989. She talks often about the federal government and Washington bureaucrats being the greatest threat to Wyoming’s economy and lifestyle.
Over the years, Hageman has repeatedly gone to bat against federal regulators on behalf of farmers, ranchers, industry, water districts, and state and local governments. She is currently senior litigation counsel at the New Civil Liberty Alliance, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based firm that has waged legal battles against federal emissions and other environmental rules, COVID-19 mandates and gun restrictions.
Hageman’s highest-profile legal fight occurred in the early 2000s when she was a key player in Wyoming’s battle against the Clinton administration’s so-called “roadless rule.” Signed in 2001, the conservation rule prohibits building roads and harvesting timber on 58.5 million acres of national forest lands across the country. In 2003, a federal judge in Wyoming blocked the rule from taking effect. A separate court reinstated the rule in 2006, only to have the Wyoming judge again invalidate it in 2008. A federal appeals court upheld the rule in 2011.
Like many conservatives, Hageman is a vocal critic of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), one of the most important laws for protecting imperiled plants and animals. In 2009, she represented a coalition of agricultural interests and hunting guides in a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the management of gray wolves in Wyoming.
Hageman argues that the ESA has become a tool for “radical environmentalists” to “stop development, control land and water use, and prevent the construction and maintenance of much-needed infrastructure projects.” And she has warned that conservationists want to “bring in all the endangered species from all over the world and release them” in Wyoming.
“They will simply move the people off and bring in lions, elephants and cheetahs,” she said in 2011.
Hageman’s legal career has aligned her with some of the nation’s most radical anti-federal lands advocates. She served for years on the board of litigation for Mountain States Legal Foundation, a right-wing, industry-funded group once described as the “litigating arm of the Wise Use Movement.” William Perry Pendley, a conservative lawyer with extreme anti-government and anti-environmentalism views, served as the organization’s president for nearly three decades before the Trump administration tapped him to lead the Federal Bureau of Land Management. The so-called “wise-use movement” was a group of anti-government organizations that gained momentum in the 1980s and pushed to boost mining, drilling and logging on federal lands while painting environmentalists as domestic terrorists.
In 2016, Hageman was a keynote speaker at the American Lands Council’s (ALC) annual conference in Salt Lake City. The Utah-based nonprofit advocates for the “timely and orderly transfer of federal public lands to willing states for local control that will provide better public access, better environmental health, and better economic productivity.” Ken Ivory, a Republican state representative from Utah and longtime leader of the pro-land-transfer movement, co-founded ALC in 2012 and led it until 2016.
At the conference, Hageman insisted that the U.S. is “moving to the point where the federal government is dictating pretty much every aspect of our lives.” America will become a socialist country if we don’t rein in the federal government, she declared.
“Why do we need all these federal agencies?” she asked. “We are sovereign.”
Hageman has dismissed climate change as a “scam” and helped advance the right-wing disinformation campaign against President Joe Biden’s conservation goal of protecting 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. She has repeated conspiratorial talking points about the “30x30” initiative being a massive federal “land grab.” And in her August 2021 opinion piece, Hageman declared without evidence that 30x30 is “intentionally designed to make us yet again dependent on foreign, and often hostile, governments for our energy resources” and will “quickly and negatively impact our standard of living, housing costs, food production, and the environment.”
The Biden administration has dismissed such claims and said it is committed to “collaboration, support for voluntary and locally-led conservation and honoring of tribal sovereignty and private property rights.”
‘A Rock And A Hard Place’
It’s unclear if Hageman’s flip-flop on Trump and Cheney boils down to simple political opportunism. Or if she came around after the Trump administration took a wrecking ball to environmental safeguards and prioritized fossil fuel production above almost everything else. Maybe it’s both.
What is clear is that by June 2020, Hageman had done a full 180. That month she was a keynote speaker at an anti-federal lands event that Trump’s Interior Department hosted at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The event was organized by the American Agri-Women coalition and titled “Federal Land Policies: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” For more than two hours, Hageman and Myron Ebell, a prominent climate change denier and advocate of shrinking the federal estate, were among those who grumbled about the amount of land the federal government owns and railed against federal land management agencies, including the one they were standing in. Hageman plugged her pitch for pilot projects that would give states the authority to manage large swaths of public land as they see fit and earn revenues off those resources over 20- to 25-year periods. She also expressed her appreciation for the Trump administration’s land management priorities.
“Right now, we have an administration in place that wants to change things and understand the significance of these issues,” Hageman said. “But I don’t know who’s coming after him and neither do you. We have to make sure that we are doing things today that will have long-term impacts in terms of federal land management.”
Unsurprisingly, Hageman has condemned Biden’s every move, including on energy and environmental policies, painting him a “puppet of the radical Left.” She has also accused Cheney of “teaming up” with Biden and other Democrats who she says are waging a “war” against Trump and harming Wyoming’s fossil fuel industry.
Hageman often knock Cheney for being vice-chair of the Jan. 6 committee but no longer a member of the House Natural Resources committee, which has oversight over federal land management agencies. That “demonstrates that she doesn’t have our best interests at heart, she has her best interests at heart,” Hageman told right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza in a June interview.
But for all Hageman’s talk about Cheney being some sort of liberal ally, the incumbent is anything but. She has proven a reliable pro-industry, anti-environment vote, maintaining an abysmal 6% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. In 2017, she voted in favor of a bill that would have made it easier for Congress to pawn off control over federal lands to states. She also supported Pendley’s nomination to lead the Bureau of Land Management, calling him a “patriot” who “knows as much as anyone about land and resource issues.”
During Trump’s four years in office, Cheney voted in line with his position 93% of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis.
Cheney’s campaign declined to respond to HuffPost’s questions about the race, but in an email pointed out that she serves as a vice chair of the Congressional Western Caucus, an all-Republican body that promotes drilling, mining and other development across the West. Additionally, the email noted she has introduced legislation to, among other things, reform environmental reviews and to “protect private property rights from potential federal overreach that could be a part of the Biden Administration’s 30×30 initiative that would lock up public lands.”
In many ways, Cheney and Hageman are in lockstep in their support for extraction and development on public lands, Dwayne Meadows said. Still, he and DeGroot agree that Hageman poses a bigger threat to federal lands in Wyoming and across the West.
“If Hageman wins, you are going to get someone who does not stand up and is pragmatic about public lands issues,” Meadows said.
DeGroot added, “It’s quite frankly a choice between a rock and a hard place.”
Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Boulder, taught Hageman in the 1980s at the University of Wyoming. He told HuffPost he remembers her as “smart, self-confident and well-spoken.” And although he does not remember having an impression of her political views back then, those leanings and her opposition to environmental regulations did not come as a surprise.
What did come as a shock was Hageman’s “embrace of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and her overt hostility to Liz Cheney for voting her conscience,” Squillace said.
“I think Harriet is ambitious and she saw an opening when Cheney decided to break from Trump,” he added.
Hageman has toed the party line about the 2020 presidential election. During a debate in June, she falsely claimed that there are “serious questions about” results — there aren’t; Biden won — and plugged “2000 Mules,” the discredited documentary by D’Souza that purports to show election fraud in several key swing states.
“The Wyoming I lived in back in the 1980s and ’90s was a far more tolerant place... I do not recall many Republicans back then embracing the positions of the right-wing ideologues"”
Squillace sees Hageman’s campaign as symbolic of a bigger political transformation in the state — one he has struggled to make sense of.
“The Wyoming I lived in back in the 1980s and ’90s was a far more tolerant place,” he said. “Sure, it was conservative, but its politics were libertarian, supporting people like [former Republican Sen.] Al Simpson and looking favorably on matters of personal autonomy like abortion rights. I do not recall many Republicans back then embracing the positions of the right-wing ideologues that seem to have gained favor in Wyoming today.”
If Hageman defeats Cheney — limited available polling has shown Hageman leading by as much as 22 percentage points — it will be less because of her natural resource credentials, and more that she handcuffed herself to Trump and his lies about the 2020 election.
That’s not unique among Republican candidates in 2022; it’s a trend. But there may be no race in the country where such a strategy is more likely to work.