Before he was tapped as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management earlier this year, William Perry Pendley spent nearly thirty years waging war on the agency as the director of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Lakewood-based group that advocates sweeping changes to federal public-lands policy. Now, Democrats in Congress are worried that Pendley, as the BLM's new head, is waging that war from within.
"We're here to discuss what is being called a 'reorganization' of the Bureau of Land Management," said U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, at a hearing today, September 10. "In reality, given the lack of transparency, analysis and consultation, this appears to be nothing more than a poorly veiled attempt to dismantle a federal agency."
The BLM administers nearly 250 million acres of public land across the West, including many wilderness areas, national monuments and land that is leased to private interests for livestock grazing, oil and gas development and other industrial uses. In July, President Donald Trump's administration outlined a sweeping plan to reorganize the agency, moving hundreds of employees from Washington, D.C., to various field offices throughout the West, including the relocation of 27 senior staffers to a new BLM headquarters in Grand Junction.
As Trump's Interior Department, which oversees the BLM and is led by former oil and gas lobbyist and Colorado native David Bernhardt, pursues an "energy dominance" agenda that includes a massive expansion in drilling on BLM lands, Democrats and environmental groups fear that the relocation is simply an attempt to disrupt the agency's operations and skirt longstanding environmental review processes.
"The Department of the Interior has done nothing to alleviate concerns that this move has been hastily planned, poorly researched and questionably motivated," Grijalva said.
In his testimony to the committee, Pendley defended the agency's planned reorganization and responded to what he called "attacks on my character and misrepresentations of my thirty years as a public lands attorney."
"It has been asserted that I do not believe in federal lands. That is not accurate," Pendley said. "As a proud and loyal member of the Trump administration, I wholeheartedly support the president and Secretary Bernhardt's crystal-clear statements that we will not dispose of, or transfer in a wholesale manner, our public lands."
In fact, in a 2016 National Review column headlined "The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands," Pendley wrote of the government's "continuing duty to dispose of its lands" and argued that because of decades of mismanagement by Democratic presidents, "westerners know that only getting title to much of the land in the West will bring real change."
Representative Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Boulder and committee member, pressed Pendley on whether he still holds the views expressed in the article. "That causes a lot of alarm for those of us who care deeply about our public lands," he said.
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After Pendley repeated his opposition to the "wholesale" transfer of public lands, Neguse interrupted him. "It sounds as though you're saying that some sale of the lands is appropriate," he told Pendley.
"Congress makes decisions about the disposal of lands," Pendley replied. "There may be case-specific circumstances where we do transfer or dispose. But Congress is the boss."
Opposition to the BLM's planned reorganization is mounting. Last week, dozens of former BLM officials sent a letter to Bernhard urging him to reconsider the move, and E&E News reported that current staffers slammed the proposal during a closed-door meeting with leadership. The agency has begun the relocation process, but Congress could ultimately seek to block the move by refusing to appropriate the necessary funds.
"That's why we're here," Pendley told the committee. "Because we believe that we can persuade the committee and Congress that this makes sense. It makes sense for the American people, it makes sense for the Bureau of Land Management and its employees. We know at the end of the day you hold the purse strings."