The Bureau of Land Management’s New Acting Director Proves the Fight for Public Lands Has Just Begun

Originally published on

by J R Sullivan

William Perry Pendley, the new acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, wants to dismantle the very agency that he’s overseeing. That’s the concern of a whole bunch of sportsmen’s and conservation groups anyway, and they are not without good reason.

The BLM manages 247.3 million acres of public land—land that rightfully belongs to every U.S. citizen, to access and enjoy. The BLM ain’t perfect. But all in all it does a commendable job of managing these public places on our behalf. The thing is, a cabal of land-hungry plutocrats has, over the past few decades but particularly in the past eight years or so, tried to rob the American public of these rich, open expanses. And William Perry Pendley—“an anti-government zealot,” as the Washington Post put it—has helped to lead the charge, and his installment has reignited the fight over who controls the ground that is the birthright of the American people.

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The debate over Pendley has been going on for a week or so, mostly in outdoors and environmental circles. But it reached a fever pitch over the past few days, after Senator Steve Daines of Montana told Montana Public Radio on Monday that the concerns over Pendley were “overblown.” In response, Land Tawney, president and CEO of the sportsmen’s group Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said in a statement today that the fact that Daines “sees nothing wrong with the ascension of Mr. Pendley … to the top post in the Bureau of Land Management is a slap in the face to all public landowners, especially those in Montana, who elected him to represent their interests and priorities.” The Sierra Club and Montana Wilderness Association have also come out against Pendley.

The concerns over Pendley are well-founded. In the early 1980s, he held a high position in the Interior Department but resigned amid controversy for basically being in the pocket of coal companies and allegedly giving them favorable coal leases in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. In 1995, Pendley made his view of public lands and how they’re managed clear to the New York Times, telling the paper, “the disease is an out-of-control Federal Government that is making life miserable for Westerners, particularly rural Westerners.” (Never mind, of course, that public lands enjoy broad support in Western states.)

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Pendley went on to run the Koch-backed Mountain States Legal Foundation, a hyper-conservative group that has challenged all sorts of pro-public-lands legislation and monument designations. The Albuquerque Journal notes that, under Pendley’s leadership, the Mountain States Legal Foundation challenged President Clinton’s creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah in the 1990s and, more recently, supported President Trump’s order to shrink that monument and the Bears Ears National Monument. Pendley has also written a number of books that advocate for privatizing public lands and that support fringe right-wing radical groups, such as the leaders of the Sagebrush Rebellion. As if Pendley’s position weren’t already abundantly clear, in 2016 he called on the federal government to sell Western public lands in a piece for the National Review.

In short, if you want to see all public lands handed over to oil-rich tycoons like the Koch brothers, you couldn’t have hoped for a better candidate. If not, welp…

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The controversy over Pendley has been compounded by the fact that he slid into the top BLM job without Congressional approval. Since Ryan Zinke, the former Interior Secretary and a know-nothing fly-fisherman, and Scott Pruitt, the former head of the EPA, resigned amid scandals, the Trump administration has doubled down on installing men and women into acting director positions within the government, under the guise that these people are filling the positions temporarily, while leaving the top director positions open indefinitely. It’s a sneaky way to slip a guy like Pendley into office, without subjecting him to the firing squad that he’d surely face in Congress. There’s no other way to explain why, since President Trump took office three years ago, the BLM has yet to have a legit, Congressionally OK’d director in place.

(Raúl M. Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the BLM, has not returned a request for comment.)

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During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump said he supported keeping the nation’s public lands in public control, and the Pendley debacle only further underscores that the president’s allegiance lies not with the American people but with deep-pocketed special-interests groups that see nothing but dollar signs when they gaze out over our country’s wildest, untouched places.

This story was originally published on August 14, 2019.

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