Acting Bureau of Land Management Director William Perry Pendley, a longtime Colorado resident and conservative lawyer, has released a long list of recusals that he says will help him do his job in an ethical manner. But a group of Democratic senators says he shouldn't be doing the job at all.
“The American people deserve a leader at the BLM who will work on behalf of its mission,” reads a letter sent by twelve Senate Democrats, including Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Thursday, September 26. “Mr. Pendley, however, is not that leader. Accordingly, we request that you terminate Mr. Pendley’s acting-director authority immediately.”
The letter came one day after Pendley issued a seventeen-page list of recusals as required by federal ethics rules, detailing the 57 businesses, trade groups, individuals and other entities he will be restricted from dealing with as acting director of the BLM, which oversees nearly 250 million acres of public lands across the West.
Among the entities listed are the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Lakewood-based conservative group Pendley led for nearly thirty years, along with the TABOR Foundation, the Colorado Mining Association, the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Washington Examiner, a news outlet owned by Colorado billionaire and prominent right-wing donor Phil Anschutz.
"I understand that preserving a culture of ethical compliance within the BLM begins with me, and I must set the example for the Bureau,” Pendley wrote in an email to BLM staff, according to E&E News.
Bernhardt, a Rifle native and former oil and gas lobbyist for Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, took over the top job at Interior earlier this year with a lengthy recusal list of his own, but his pledge expired in August, and prior to that, environmental and ethics groups have accused him of violating it repeatedly. With Pendley and his list of recusals, it’s just more of the same, those groups say.
“The list is longer than a CVS receipt, and it shows that Pendley is about as conflicted as his boss, former mega-lobbyist David Bernhardt,” Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project, said in a statement. “It’s clear that in order to preserve America’s public lands, this conflicted character needs to go.”
In their letter to Bernhardt, Democrats highlighted Pendley’s decades of work with the MSLF, which was founded in 1976 by conservative donor Joseph Coors and provided legal backing for the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a Reagan-era movement that advocated for the transfer of federally owned lands to private entities and states.
Prior to being tapped to lead the BLM in July, Pendley consistently denied the existence of climate change on his Twitter account, @Sagebrush_Rebel. As president of the MSLF, he spent years “fighting for expanded oil and gas development in wild places, fewer protections for critical wildlife, and less protected public land,” Bennet and his fellow senators wrote.
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Pendley is the fourth acting BLM director to serve under President Donald Trump, who has yet to nominate a permanent director nearly three years into his presidency. Pendley’s designation as acting director expires on September 30, but Bernhardt is expected to extend that order, and the department on Friday dismissed the concerns raised in the letter from Senate Democrats.
"Secretary Bernhardt has every confidence in Mr. Pendley's commitment to carry out the priorities of this Administration for the betterment of the American people,” an Interior spokesperson wrote in an email to Westword.
Under Bernhardt and Pendley’s leadership, the Interior Department has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the BLM, transferring 27 top staffers to a new headquarters in Grand Junction and scattering hundreds of others to regional BLM offices across the West. Congressional Democrats and advocacy groups have denounced the move as a veiled attempt to weaken the agency's enforcement of environmental regulations, and Pendley's continued presence in the director's office has only reinforced that belief.
“As the BLM considers a major reorganization, there is no reason for this effort to be led by an Acting Director who spent his career attempting to dismantle the agency,” Senate Democrats wrote. “The American people deserve better.”