President Trump has withdrawn the nomination of William Perry Pendley to lead the Bureau of Land Management. The highly controversial former oil and mining industry lawyer, who publicly called for the outright sale of federal public lands, has drawn anger from public land users and advocates across the country—especially in the last few weeks. The Governor of Montana sued to block his appointment, a coalition of 45 Senators demanded immediate hearings on his long-pending nomination, and Native tribes and conservationists lifted their opposition to fever pitch. Though he will no longer go before the Senate for confirmation to be the formal director, he remains in the de facto acting director role where he has been for more than a year—many people say illegally.
Pendley has a long, documented history of advocating the disposal of public lands, denying scientific findings, making racist statements, and keeping a cozy relationship with the extractive industries he used to represent as a lawyer. In his year as acting director of the BLM, the agency charged with managing the largest landmass in the country, he has been accused of making backroom, bargain-basement deals on oil leases, unwillingness to work or compromise with conservation groups and tribes, and losing half the agency’s workforce during its transition from Washington, D.C., to Colorado. In 2016, Pendley wrote a now-infamous article for the National Review entitled: “The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands.”
Senator Jon Tester of Montana has been among the most vocal and powerful politicians calling for Pendley to receive an actual confirmation hearing, which he is almost certain Pendley would fail.
“Serious threats to our public lands remain—chief among them is the current de facto director of the Bureau of Land Management,” Sen. Tester said. “Pendley was put in charge nearly one year ago, but instead of nominating him to serve as director, the Trump Administration hid him from public scrutiny through a series of moves and denied government accountability. This meant that he did not have to answer tough questions regarding his anti-public lands record or come before the U.S. Senate for a confirmation vote. Why would the administration go to such lengths? Well it’s because the truth is, William Perry Pendley is uniquely unqualified to run the Bureau of Land Management. His record on public lands is as long as is extreme and he has no business overseeing the public lands he has spent his career working to undermine.”
Sen. Tester said that after Pendley was installed as acting director he spoke to him directly. Then he went to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Then he finally went straight to President Trump in order to force a formal nomination, which finally occurred in June. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act requires that department heads do not serve in an acting capacity for more than 210 days. Pendley has served for nearly a year. The administration skirted this law by re-appointing him several times instead of formally nominating him.
The Blackfeet Nation, a large tribe and reservation in north-central Montana, has experience with Pendley both as an oil industry lawyer and as the acting director of the BLM. The immediate former chairman of the tribe, Harry Barnes, holds Pendley in distinctly low regard.
“We have dealt firsthand with Mr. Pendley and it was not a pleasant experience by any stretch of the imagination,” Chairman Barnes said. “I too agree: Why would such a person be put in charge of the Bureau of Land Management? Our recent experience with Mr. Pendley was in regard to the Badger-Two Medicine [Valley], in which we’ve been trying to stop drilling for years, decades probably, on oil leases that we believe were illegally issued. We even met with Mr. Pendley and his client and tried to negotiate a settlement that was good for his client and good for the Blackfeet people, as well as the Badger-Two Medicine, but he just absolutely dug in his heels and refused to move an inch. Ultimately, he lost in court. But the man has absolutely no regard for tribal sovereignty.”
Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, says he’s experiencing whiplash—going from the historic, bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, to the nomination of an unacceptable leader of the BLM.
“Pendley does not believe that public land should exist. Period. He’s advocated for their sale repeatedly for decades,” O’Mara said. “He is an unfit manager of Bureau of Land Management employees. The bigotry that he has shown towards black Americans, towards native Americans, towards LGBTQ Americans, and when he was the head of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, he sided with the armed insurgents against Bureau Land Management employees.
“These aren’t one-off actions,” O’Mara continued. “These are decades of writing, decades of speeches, decades of statements made in the last, even in last six months. He has spent his entire career advocating for the selloff of public land, bigotry towards his fellow Americans, and the denigration of public servants and people of color. It’s a pattern of behavior that’s absolutely central to who he is. Putting William Perry Pendley in charge of the Bureau of Land Management is like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department.”
Under mounting public pressure and rapidly shrinking chances of confirmation in the Senate, the White House announced on August 15 that it would withdraw Pendley’s nomination. That decision will be formalized when the Senate reconvenes in September. However, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a vocal supporter of Pendley, said Pendley would continue to leading the BLM and “exercising the authority of director,” according to E&E News. Pendley’s opponents are unlikely to be mollified by returning to the status quo and will continue to press their numerous lawsuits against him.
“Public lands have proven to be a bipartisan middle ground during this administration. They’re shaping up to be the talking point over which both Democrats and Republicans will hope to sway undecided voters this November,” said Ryan Callaghan, MeatEater’s director of conservation. “If William Perry Pendley were truly the person for this job, that oversees 245 million surface acres of our public land, why try so hard to avoid a confirmation hearing, which is a job interview? Shouldn’t someone appointed with this level of responsibility also be able to prove their worth? The administration should remove Pendley once and for all and appoint someone who loves and believes in our public lands.”
Feature image by John Hafner.