William Perry Pendley, who once wrote that the “Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” last month was officially nominated by President Donald Trump to become the director of the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which manages 247 million acres of public land, predominantly in western states.
Pendley has already been serving in that post on an interim basis for a year; the announcement that Pendley's position could now become official has been denounced by environmental groups across the country.
“There’s really no one less qualified to lead the BLM,” says Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at Center for Western Priorities. “He’s basically spent his entire career looking to undermine the agency that he’s now supposed to lead."
Pendley, a native of Wyoming, has served as the bureau’s acting director since last July, thanks to a series of extensions authorized by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who was raised in Rifle and attended the University of Northern Colorado. Even before it became official, Pendley's nomination was challenged in federal court in May by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which argued that the Trump administration has circumvented the Senate’s constitutional “advice and consent” role in confirming high-level employees.
The BLM has not had a Senate-confirmed director during the Trump administration.
“We [PEER] would say the Trump administration has a pattern of avoiding compliance with key laws on appointing officials, and this is just another example,” says Peter Jenkins, senior counsel at PEER.
Pendley served as the Department of Interior's deputy assistant secretary for energy and minerals from 1981 to 1984 under Interior Secretary James Watt during the Reagan administration. In 1977, Watt had founded the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, from which he filed lawsuits and pursued pro-business legislation regarding the environment for years. Watt ultimately resigned from his Interior position after reports criticized his ties to industry interests. In 1984, Pendley himself was criticized by an independent commission for selling coal resources at the Powder River Basin at a $100 million loss to taxpayers.
And from 1989 through 2018, Pendley served as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, often suing federal agencies to challenge conservation regulations, including national monument designations.
He left that post to join the BLM. In nominating him for the permanent directorship, Trump noted that Pendley “has worked to increase recreational opportunities on and access to our Nation’s public lands, heighten concern for the impact of wild horses and burros on public lands, and increase awareness of the Bureau’s multiple-use mission.”
Pendley's critics certainly have an increased awareness of what he could do to the BLM in the future, given his past words and actions. A sampling:
On November 7, 2013, Pendley told a columnist at the Washington Examiner that environmentalists “want a utopian world where they don’t use anything and deprive everyone else of affordable energy so they can’t use anything.”
During a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 7, 2014, Pendley said: “You can’t understand the battle against fossil fuels without understanding what is at the core of the environmental movement and these environmental extremists...they don’t believe in human beings. They’re not concerned about health and well-being."
In a January 19, 2016, article for the National Review titled “The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands,” Pendley wrote, "The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold. After all, jurisdiction over real property, that is, property law, was given to the states.” According to that piece, the Supreme Court had correctly and narrowly interpreted the Property Clause in 1984, holding that the clause gave rise to a constitutional duty to dispose of its land holdings.
In another article he wrote for the National Review, on September 25, 2017, Pendley argued that then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke's recommendation that the Trump administration decrease the size of four national monuments was not far-reaching enough.
On November 1, 2018, in an article he wrote for the Washington Examiner on Wyoming trial lawyer and 2018 Republican primary gubernatorial candidate Harriet M. Hageman, he referred to "the alphabet soup of federal agencies that make the rural West a virtual colony."
On September 10, 2019, U.S. Representative Joe Neguse questioned Pendley about his 2016 National Review article at a BLM hearing. "This caused a lot of alarm for those of us who care deeply about public lands — that they be maintained for use and enjoyment of future generations — which is the mission statement on the BLM website,” Neguse said. Pendley responded by noting that he “never advocated the wholesale disposal or transfer of those lands” — but he did not dispute anything less than wholesale. Congress makes decisions about the disposal of lands and the BLM obeys, Pendley said, adding, “There may be case-specific circumstances where we do transfer or dispose.”
The transfer that made the biggest headlines, however, was the announcement that the BLM headquarters would move from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, a transition that was completed this month. As acting director, Pendley promoted the move as part of a broader push to decentralize the government, with forty positions going to Colorado (though the pandemic reduced that number).
But Prentice-Dunn of the Center for Western Priorities characterizes the move as “a cynical attempt to drain the industry of leadership and really water down its ability to adequately manage our lands. ... We’ve seen decades of experience walk out the door because people didn’t want to leave their families, their schools, their communities, and uproot their lives, all for a move that doesn’t make sense.” He estimates that 97 percent of the BLM's staff already worked west of the Mississippi, and says that this move just gives industry more power while removing it from oversight in D.C.
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Now that Pendley has been nominated, critics are waiting to see if the Senate will hold a hearing where he'll have to explain his positions. “The chair of the committee, Senator [Lisa] Murkowsi from Alaska, claims that it will get some priority, but I’ll be surprised if the hearing is held very soon,” says PEER's Jenkins, who predicts that once that hearing is held, there will be enough information marshaled against Pendley to ensure that he does not get approved.
Senator Michael Bennet has already gone on record against him: “I will oppose William Perry Pendley’s nomination to become director of the Bureau of Land Management because his policies do not reflect Colorado’s values and commitment to conservation. Someone who has spent their entire career opposed to the very idea of public lands is unfit to lead a land management agency."
Senator Cory Gardner has not yet said whether he will support Pendley's nomination; his office has not responded to requests for comment.
Regardless of whether he's approved, PEER is concerned about what Pendley can do as acting director in the meantime. “He doesn’t even believe in the very fundamental tenet that we should even have national public lands, and now he’s going to be in charge of managing a tenth of the country,” Jenkins says. “It’s insane.”