"What I Did in the Past Is Irrelevant," BLM Chief Says in Fort Collins

Acting BLM director William Perry Pendley appeared at an environmental journalism conference in Fort Collins.
Acting BLM director William Perry Pendley appeared at an environmental journalism conference in Fort Collins. Chase Woodruff
On his personal Twitter account, acting Bureau of Land Management Director William Perry Pendley has called “the Main Stream [sic] Media … historically, culturally, and academically ignorant,” and approvingly quoted a tweet that called the press “crooked,” “broken” and “pathetic.”

As he faced a room full of journalists at Colorado State University in Fort Collins today, October 11, Pendley initially struck a more deferential tone. During a panel discussion on public-lands policy at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Pendley assumed the role of an impartial, by-the-books bureaucrat — not the flame-throwing right-wing litigator who had called climate change a "fiction" and climate activism a "cult" before being tapped by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to lead the BLM earlier this year.

“I’m not a scientist, I’m a lawyer,” Pendley said in response to a question on climate change from moderator Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter. “I defer to the Secretary; he's been very clear on this subject. He believes that climate change is real, that mankind has an impact."

The friendly tone of the panel soon shifted, however, as reporters in attendance got the opportunity to speak during a question-and-answer session. Virtually all of them chose to ask questions of Pendley, who has given few interviews since his appointment in July, and leads an agency that journalists and ethics watchdogs say increasingly lacks transparency.

“Nonsense. Absolute nonsense,” a frustrated Pendley said in response to a fellow panelist’s claim that his agency had prohibited employees from speaking to the press. "If employees want to talk to the media — hey, I've got a send button on my computer, and every time I hit send, it ends up at E&E [News]. I don't know how that happens. But apparently our employees are not constrained with regard to communicating with y'all."

“You want to ask a question and get it answered, or do you want to keep talking?” Pendley said later, interrupting a follow-up question from Denver Post reporter Judith Kohler and prompting groans from the crowd.

Throughout the event, Pendley repeatedly rebuffed questions on his long history of denying the existence of climate change, arguing that his personal views were irrelevant because they now take a back seat to official Interior Department policy.

"You have been clear in the past on Twitter and elsewhere that you don't think climate change exists," New York Times climate reporter Lisa Friedman told Pendley. "I'm hoping that you could clarify for us: What did you mean by that? What don’t you think exists? Is it that you don't think greenhouse gases are warming the Earth? Is it something else?”

“Nope,” Pendley said. “Not going to clarify. Those are my personal opinions."

Pendley’s appointment in July shocked environmental groups and put a longtime BLM critic in the top post at the agency, which manages nearly 250 million acres of federally owned land, most of it in the West. Under Bernhardt, a Colorado native and former oil lobbyist, the BLM has pursued an “energy dominance” agenda, opening up vast new tracts of public land for oil and gas drilling and other forms of development.

Prior to joining the BLM, Pendley spent nearly thirty years as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit based in Lakewood and founded by wealthy Colorado conservative donor Joseph Coors in 1977. In its early years, the MSLF helped provide legal support to the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a Reagan-era backlash against federal public-lands policy led by Coors and powerful Western industrial and agribusiness interests.

In the ensuing decades, Pendley and the MSLF continued to push for increased industrial development on public lands, and even the transfer of federally owned land to private entities or the states. In 2016, Pendley authored an opinion piece in the National Review headlined “The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands,” in which he argued that after chronic mismanagement of public lands by Democrats in Washington, “westerners know that only getting title to much of the land in the West will bring real change."

While Pendley's history of climate denial was well known upon his appointment to the BLM, additional reporting from CNN earlier this week uncovered a 1992 lecture Pendley gave at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in which he denied the existence of a hole in the ozone layer, and a 2007 fundraising letter from the MSLF in which Pendley compared undocumented immigrants to cancer.

At Friday's SEJ panel, Rico Moore, a freelance Colorado journalist, asked Pendley if he stood by his past statements about undocumented immigrants.

“My personal opinions are irrelevant," Pendley replied. "I have a new job now. I'm a zealous advocate for my client, my client is the American people, and my boss is the President of the United States and Secretary Bernhardt. What I thought, what I wrote, what I did in the past is irrelevant. I have orders, I have laws to obey, and I intend to do that."

Pendley's reluctance to offer his personal opinions seemed to be selective, however. During the panel, he criticized a lawsuit known as Juliana v. United States, in which a group of youth plaintiffs have sued the federal government over its failure to stop climate change, and called plans by many Democratic presidential candidates to stop drilling for oil and gas on public lands "absolutely insane."

As acting BLM director, Pendley is overseeing the agency’s planned “reorganization,” a proposal to relocate 27 of its top staffers to a new headquarters in Grand Junction and scatter hundreds of others across field offices in the West. Congressional Democrats and environmental groups have denounced the proposal as a veiled attempt to dismantle the agency and weaken or circumvent critical environmental review processes.

“I think what it’s going to do is allow us to be closer to the people, closer to the ground,” Pendley said Friday. The agency announced last month that it had leased office space for its new headquarters in a building that also houses several oil and gas companies.

Last month, a group of twelve Senate Democrats, including Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, sent a letter to Bernhardt demanding that Pendley be removed from his post; instead, the Interior Secretary signed an order extending Pendley’s tenure as acting director until January. Pendley is the fourth acting BLM director to serve under President Donald Trump, who has not yet nominated a permanent director to lead the agency.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff