Public land sell-off radical named BLM’s acting director—5 reasons to be very worried

William Perry Pendley, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management

William Perry Pendley, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management


William Perry Pendley led extremist legal org

William Perry Pendley has been named the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), handing authority over hundreds of millions of acres to an extremist who has approvingly described efforts to take over public lands as “a fight for the future of the republic.”  

Pendley’s ascension adds to fears that the Department of the Interior, which includes BLM and other land management agencies, is taking steps toward critically undermining the very idea of public lands. If Pendley is eventually chosen to lead the BLM outright, it will be an unprecedented instance of a land sell-off enthusiast gaining dominion over the resources he is sworn to undermine. 

Pendley has approvingly described efforts to take over public lands as “a fight for the future of the republic.”  

“Even for the Trump administration, this is a shocking choice. Putting William Perry Pendley into a position where he can make decisions that directly affect public lands is akin to assigning Wile E. Coyote sole custody of the Road Runner,” said Dan Hartinger, national monument campaign director at The Wilderness Society. 

“The Senate needs to make clear that a radical anti-public lands zealot has no place leading the BLM, and that if Perry Pendley were nominated for the role permanently, confirmation would be a complete non-starter,” he added. 

Until the end of 2018, Pendley served as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which was founded in the 1970s as a counterpart and opponent to conservation groups. Since then the firm has fought to erode public lands protections and gut environmental laws, following a fringe agenda that runs counter to the beliefs of actual westerners the group purports to represent. Before that, Pendley served at Interior under infamous Reagan administration secretary James G. Watt, generally regarded as an enemy of public lands and conservation. 

Here are five reasons we’re concerned about Pendley and will be looking for senators to oppose his confirmation. 

1. He has fought to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine

For decades, energy companies have been trying to drill in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine, in violation of bedrock environmental laws and against the wishes of the Blackfeet Nation, which considers the land sacred and opposes any industrial development in the area.  

In 2016, one company that still held leases in Badger-Two Medicine relinquished its claims. Soon after, the other remaining leases were cancelled by the Obama administration. One of the leaseholders, Solenex, kept fighting to drill in the landscape, but through the legal battle that followed, the Trump administration maintained the Badger-Two Medicine was off-limits--a rare example of responsible policy. 

Well, guess what? That was perhaps the one Trump administration action William Perry Pendley disagreed with. Not only did he represent Solenex at Mountain States Legal Foundation, but in his capacity as a commentator for various media outlets, he loudly called for leases to be reinstated to allow exploratory drilling. Downplaying the cultural significance of the landscape, which is key to the Blackfeet creation story and a designated Traditional Cultural District under the National Historic Preservation Act, Pendley has said the Badger-Two Medicine simply "belongs to the U.S. government ... and [Solenex] has a property right to it."  

Letting Pendley anywhere near decisions that affect the Badger-Two Medicine leases would represent a gross conflict of interest, and Blackfeet tribal members and others have already asked that he recuse himself from such issues

2. He’s aligned himself with the fringe anti-public land movement

Pendley is part of an anti-public lands fringe, claiming the “Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold” and cheering on any policies that would turn them into places for mining, drilling and development. Additionally, he has implied that the antics of the notorious Bundy family, best known for engaging in an armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, are merely an understandable reaction to federal overreach.  

3. He opposes national monuments and the Antiquities Act

Pendley called the Trump administration’s punitive review of national monuments, “courageous”; wildly applauded the unlawful cuts to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments that resulted from it; and, when tribes and conservation groups challenged the actions in court, cast Trump—who you may recall is the president of the United States—as “David fight[ing] Goliath out West.” 

Pendley has also managed the difficult trick of openly attacking the very existence of national monuments, and at the same time portraying conservationists who notice those attacks as mere alarmists. For example, he has both suggested Congress and President Trump “repeal the Antiquities Act,” the law used to protect Bears Ears and other sites, and claimed that fears about not being able to use the Antiquities Act to protect public lands in the future are “ridiculous.” 

4. He’s a climate denier and all-around enemy of environmental protection

Unsurprisingly, Pendley is a climate denier, referring to the overwhelming body of research on climate change as “political science or junk science, not real science.” His legal foundation has fought efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to curb climate change-driving greenhouse gas emissions. Given that a major chunk of those emissions come from fossil fuels that are extracted on public lands, and reducing those emissions is considered a key starting point for addressing climate change, it’s distressing to think of Pendley running an agency that oversees tens of thousands of oil, gas and coal leases on public lands.  

In his long career, Pendley has also railed against the imaginary “war on coal,” efforts to protect wildlife under the Endangered Species Act and policies intended to strengthen the Clean Water Act. 

5. His legal foundation sought to undermine Native American rights and representation

Mountain States Legal Foundation has been involved in numerous efforts to weaken protections for lands considered culturally significant by Native American tribes or otherwise undermine tribal rights and representation.  

In two of the highest profile examples, the group backed a logging company trying to remove protections from forests surrounding northern Wyoming’s Bighorn Medicine Wheel, which is considered sacred by some tribes; and represented Fremont County, Wyoming, in an attempt to minimize Native American representation on the county’s board of commissioners.  

Per the media outlet Native News Online, the Mountain States Legal Foundation has “consistently litigated against tribal interests,” while the Association on American-Indian Affairs, a nearly century-old Native American advocacy group, has described the foundation as “opposed to government efforts to protect Native American sacred sites.” 

Discussing looming threats to Badger-Two Medicine, Tom Rodgers, an advisor to the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and Blackfeet tribal member, recently told Native News Online “If they can do this with Badger-Two Medicine, this administration can do it anywhere, to any tribe. It’s the latest terrible betrayal in 242 years of betrayals[.]” With Pendley leading the BLM, a broader federal campaign against tribal public land interests seems very possible.