Celeste Maloy is Ammon Bundy’s cousin. Would that impact her views on public lands in Congress?

“I would love to see the state have jurisdiction over (public lands) someday — right now we don’t,” Maloy, the GOP candidate in Utah’s special congressional election, said in an interview.

Between posts praising the actions of her stepson, Ammon, and a Jon McNaughton painting of her husband Cliven, Carol Bundy shared Celeste Maloy’s candidacy announcement and campaign videos to her Facebook page.

The Nevadan isn’t merely offering her support because of Maloy’s similar views on public lands issues — the Utah congressional candidate is also Carol Bundy’s niece.

Maloy has ridden her southern Utah connections and rural roots to rocket from a virtually unknown Washington, D.C., staffer to the cusp of winning Utah’s 2nd Congressional District seat in Congress.

On the campaign trail, the Republican has frequently highlighted the issue of public lands. Like some other Republican politicians in Western states — and her Bundy relatives — Maloy believes individual states, not the federal government, should have jurisdiction over those lands.

The Bundys’ views are widely considered extreme by expert organizations like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Cliven Bundy first rose to prominence on the political right in 2014 when he staged an armed standoff with federal agents who attempted to seize his cattle after he refused to pay more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees from his use of federal lands adjacent to his Bunkerville, Nev., ranch.

His second wife is Carol Turner Bundy, and her sister is Cathy “Cass” Turner Maloy, Celeste Maloy’s mother. That makes Cliven Bundy the congressional candidate’s uncle, and Ammon Bundy, who after participating in the Bunkerville confrontation led the deadly 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by a group of far-right extremists, her cousin.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cliven and Carol Bundy, left, join other supporters of convicted fraudster Rick Koerber as they gather ahead of his court sentencing in Salt Lake City at the Federal Courthouse on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, ending a nearly two decade white collar crime saga.

“It’s all rooted in a fundamental willful misreading of the Constitution,” Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, said of their views.

“All of these folks just ignore the text of the Constitution and 200 years of jurisprudence,” he adds. “The Constitution makes it clear — Congress has the ultimate say over federal lands. That is the beginning and the end of it.”

During an interview this month, Maloy wouldn’t answer questions about her extended family but was quick to point out that Ammon has endorsed one of her opponents.

“I’m going to go ahead and sidestep questions on the Bundys because I don’t know if that’s a fair question, given that they’re backing someone else in the race,” Maloy said.

While Carol Bundy was reposting a video of Maloy telling voters “we need less government, more freedom, more family values,” Ammon Bundy said in a reel posted on candidate Brad Green’s Instagram page that the Utah libertarian is a “true patriot who’s not afraid to stand and fight.”

Maloy told The Salt Lake Tribune she didn’t realize her aunt had posted in support of her, but that she was “glad to hear it.” A review of Carol Bundy’s Facebook shows that Maloy’s campaign liked Bundy’s post, but Maloy says she hasn’t been on social media since the start of the campaign.

Ammon’s decision to endorse Green was not meant as a snub to Maloy, he said in an email to The Tribune, but that he only waded into Utah’s special congressional election because Green asked for his endorsement, and Maloy had not.

“Celeste has always been good to me. She has spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C. as a lawyer, and that concerns me,” Bundy said, adding he has not discussed politics with her for more than eight years.

‘Surrounded by public lands’

On the north end of Nevada’s Pahranagat Valley, a green strip of land in the Great Basin Desert dotted with ranches and frequented by tourists looking for extraterrestrial life, sits Hiko, Maloy’s hometown with a population of just over a hundred.

The small community, sometimes referred to as a ghost town, is surrounded by federal land. To the south is the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pahranagat Valley National Wildlife Refuge, to the west is the Department of Defense’s famed Area 51, and much of the mountains that stand over the town are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

“My philosophy on public lands is very much shaped by the fact that I grew up in a really small town surrounded by public land, and that almost everybody I knew made a living on natural resources, and the federal government controlled most of those natural resources,” Maloy said.

Cattle have grazed in the meadows of the valley — filled with archaeological evidence of various groups of earlier Indigenous residents — since the mid-19th century, around the time the resident Southern Paiutes were removed to the Moapa River Indian Reservation.

Maloy was a child when the Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Mojave desert tortoise an endangered species in 1990. The congressional candidate said she remembers and was influenced by the tensions it sparked between ranchers and the federal government in southern Nevada. Those disagreements later led to the Bundy family’s 2014 standoff.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Celeste Maloy in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.

She spent the first dozen years of her adult life working as a soil conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then pivoted to pursue law in 2012, around the same time tensions between her uncle Cliven Bundy and the BLM were growing.

“I grew up thinking the federal government can do anything they wanted, and there was nothing people can do to stop it,” Maloy said. “And, yeah, that probably did help shape some of my desire to be involved in policy work, and hold the federal government accountable and keep it small enough that it can’t just do whatever it wants and people don’t have any control over what happens around them.”

Since graduating from law school at Brigham Young University, much of Maloy’s work has focused on public lands policy.

During law school, she held externships in the Utah attorney general’s office and late Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office, one focusing on natural resources and the other on public lands. She also externed with the Interior Department. Maloy interned with Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, and eventually went on to work as an attorney for Washington County, where she concurrently served as the public lands lawyer for the Utah Association of Counties.

“I regularly interact with federal agencies on the challenges that face a rapidly growing county where half of our land is managed by the Department of Interior and only 16% is privately owned,” Maloy said in 2017, describing her job to a subcommittee of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee at a hearing “Examining Impacts of Federal Natural Resources Laws Gone Astray.”

She continued, “My experience in interacting with land management agencies, particularly the BLM, is that administrative processes overshadow the agency mission given by Congress. We routinely see federal agency employees treat their manuals and handbooks as if they are the ultimate law.”

At the time, the Natural Resources Committee was headed by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who, following Maloy’s testimony, expressed confidence in the way President Donald Trump’s administration would handle the Interior Department going forward.

Then, he wondered aloud in front of the subcommittee, “Is there some way in statute that we can … provide a process that will go on beyond this particular administration to the next to guarantee that voices are going to be heard at the local level, which hasn’t happened in the past?”

Maloy hopes so. And if she makes it to Congress, has ideas for what she’d like to change.

“I would love to see the state have jurisdiction over (public lands) someday — right now we don’t,” the candidate told The Tribune, continuing, “If the federal government is going to manage the majority of the land in Utah, which it does, then there should be more deference to local elected officials who are accountable to the people here in Utah.”

While Maloy feels some federal agencies have overstepped their bounds when it comes to public land management, she doesn’t want to eliminate them, as Republican politicians at all levels of government have called for over the years.

Instead, Maloy said, she would like Congress to look at each agency’s operations, and if they’re acting outside of the authority granted by lawmakers, to defund that part of the agency’s budget.

“It’s not radical, it doesn’t require any legislative changes, and it’s something I think has bipartisan appeal,” Maloy said.

The frontrunner in the race, Maloy’s perspective on the direction of the executive branch, which she described as “way too powerful,” is especially pertinent as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a series of cases taking aim at the so-called “administrative state.”

Rulings on those cases could alter the power balance among the three government branches, requiring federal agencies to more frequently defer to congressional guidance — and the judicial system — and completely rely on lawmakers for funding.

‘My own office’

Maloy’s work on public lands caught the eye of another Utah congressman: former Rep. Chris Stewart, who Maloy is now running to replace. While in office, Stewart was on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies when he hired Maloy in 2019.

“She’s truly one of the smartest people I know on water rights, on public lands issues, on natural resources,” Stewart said. “She’s just a very, very well-versed attorney. When we hired her, it made some people in southern Utah angry because they didn’t want to lose her.”

The now-candidate said she was initially reluctant to accept a job offer from Stewart’s office, but “appreciated the way he responded to local issues — things that don’t necessarily make big headlines, things that have a federal nexus but aren’t big national issues.”

Five years earlier, just after the Bunkerville standoff concluded in April 2014, Stewart told The Tribune that the BLM’s response to the Bundys’ armed confrontation “concerns a lot of us,” comparing its law enforcement unit to a SWAT team.

Stewart introduced the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act in June 2014, which would have barred most federal agencies from purchasing or using a firearm, but the bill never made it to a vote. Neither did legislation he co-sponsored in 2016 with other Republicans aimed at eliminating law enforcement capabilities of the BLM and the Forest Service.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks at an event for the Sutherland Institute at the University of Utah, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.

“It was terribly destructive for everyone, and in some cases, it even led to losses of life,” Stewart said during an interview earlier this month, looking back at the standoffs led by the Bundys. “So we want to avoid that in any way we can.

“Having said that, I am still of the mind that BLM, Department of Education, IRS, all of these agencies are very heavily armed. … We’re dealing with this real problem where people are growing distrustful of their own government — things like that make them more distrustful. I think a lighter hand is better.”

The former congressman’s policy stances landed him on Center for Western Priorities’ “Bundy’s Buddies” list. When website viewers hovered the mouse over his name, it highlighted a quote in which he said federal lands should belong to states, and states should be allowed to sell those tracts of land to private entities.

Stewart said “I think I probably didn’t” know Maloy was related to the Bundys when he hired her, adding that he knew her professionally rather than personally. “Maybe I learned it at some point after,” he said, continuing, “It wouldn’t have changed my decision.”

Ideologically, from the retired representative’s point of view, he and Maloy are closely aligned — “especially regarding public lands and natural resources.”

Maloy agrees, but says she’s “coming at this with my own life experiences, my own priorities, and I intend to make it my own office.”

Boosted by the Bundys?

It’s unclear whether Maloy’s family ties are known, or whether they’ve won her favor elsewhere in right-wing politics, but other conservative figures sympathetic to the Bundys have backed her congressional run.

The now-retired Bishop and U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei from Nevada have both contributed to Maloy’s campaign, according to Federal Elections Commission filings. While neither have expressed outright support for the Bundys, they blamed the violent confrontations on federal agencies, and Amodei criticized the late Sen. Harry Reid for calling the family “domestic terrorists.”

And this summer, David Bernhardt, a Trump-appointed Interior secretary, wrote a glowing endorsement of Maloy for the Deseret News.

On the Trump administration’s last day in office, Bernhardt reinstated grazing permits for the ranchers who inspired the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. And in 2018, while Bernhardt was deputy secretary of the interior, the department brought on Karen Budd-Falen, who at one point represented Cliven Bundy in his legal fight against the BLM, as the deputy solicitor for wildlife and parks.

“Public lands are an integral part of Utah’s history, culture and future,” Bernhardt wrote in the Op-Ed. “With so many critical decisions for these lands made more than 2,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., Utah needs and deserves a strong voice in the U.S. House of Representatives who has a breadth of experience in public lands policy and understands the most pressing issues facing the state.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ammon Bundy speaks to supporters and the media on the case of convicted fraudster Rick Koerber as they gather ahead of his court sentencing in Salt Lake City at the Federal Courthouse on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, ending a nearly two decade white collar crime saga.

Maloy’s quest for elected office comes on the heels of Ammon’s failed 2022 run for Idaho governor and the unsuccessful 2018 Nevada gubernatorial run by another cousin, Ryan Bundy.

But Weiss, of the Center for Western Priorities, cautions against any urge to lump Maloy’s political aspirations in with those of her cousins.

“I don’t know the extent that they (Ammon and Ryan Bundy) ever thought these runs for office would be successful as much as they would give them a soapbox,” Weiss said. “Ammon Bundy is an attention seeker. He needs to be in the spotlight.”

Beyond family and geography, Maloy shares the faith of many members of the Bundy family — she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But as Ammon Bundy was criticizing the church for allegedly being “infiltrated” by socialists and environmentalists, Maloy was brought onto the board of a nonprofit meant to inspire environmental responsibility among Latter-day Saints.

“I think she felt that she was there to provide a balance, and so usually she would speak up when she felt like this isn’t a conservative voice, this isn’t a rural voice, and I’m going to give you my viewpoint on that,” said Rebecca Bateman, a former executive director of LDS Earth Stewardship, continuing, “But there were other times where I think she felt like (the nonprofit) didn’t reflect her views, and I don’t know if she wanted to be acquainted with us all the time.”

Bateman, who previously worked on the U.S. Senate campaign for Becky Edwards — a Republican defeated by Maloy in the special primary election — said the congressional candidate’s relationship to the Bundys never came up at meetings, but that it “would have created some problems.”

If elected to Congress, Bateman said of Maloy, “She favors what a rural person would favor, and would support things that help farmers, help ranchers, and if that is in conflict with another environmental policy, I would guess that she would stay true to her rural roots.”