Public lands foe Pendley to be nominated as BLM director

Two men look at something out of frame in front of a red-rock desert landscape in Moab, Utah

William Perry Pendley (right) and a Bureau of Land Management staffer in Moab, Utah

Eric Coulter, BLM

Director known for extreme views on lands, climate, diversity

William Perry Pendley will be formally nominated to take over as director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a role he has held on an acting basis for months. As a result, Pendley will continue to exercise authority over hundreds of millions of acres of public land after spending decades inveighing against the very concept. 

“William Perry Pendley is an ideological zealot with values that are deeply out of touch with the mainstream” - Phil Hanceford, conservation director for The Wilderness Society

“William Perry Pendley is an ideological zealot with values that are deeply out of touch with the mainstream,” said Phil Hanceford, conservation director for The Wilderness Society, in a joint statement with other groups when Pendley's provisional job was extended in April 2020.

Pendley is best known as former president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a counter-conservation group that seeks to gut environmental laws. There, he served as counsel for development interests trying to gain access to public lands. Pendley also worked as an Interior staffer under infamous Reagan administration secretary James G. Watt.

Since Pendley was named acting BLM director in July 2019, he has:

  • …announced the BLM is transferring its headquarters out of Washington DC, a move that will force dozens of staffers to either move or resign and might have disproportionate impact on people of color and other protected classes of federal employees. It’s been reported that 80 percent of staffers will reject the orders and leave the agency altogether; historic preservation groups and former senior BLM staffers have spoken out against the move.
  • …referred to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a foundational law promoting transparency that is considered the Magna Carta of environmental rules, as “a terrible burden.” 
  • …filed a financial report showing dozens of conflicts of interest that might affect his work at BLM, including a “lifelong payment” annuity from the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is dedicated to eroding public lands protections.
  • …given his blessing to a Trump administration proposal that would set a terrible precedent by opening non-motorized trails on public lands to e-bikes.
  • …penned an op-ed advising that BLM staff defer to state- and local-level authorities, a common tack of anti-public lands ideologues who want to weaken national land management agencies.
Badger-Two Medicine, Montana

Badger-Two Medicine, Montana

Pendley’s placement in the BLM has been called part of a broader campaign to weaken the Department of the Interior,  and the reasons to oppose his confirmation go beyond his anti-public lands policies; he has also said the Black Lives Matter movement is based on "a lie," insulted young climate advocates, compared climate change to unicorns and lashed out against diversity, among other troubling statements

In addition to anti-public lands views, William Perry Pendley has said Black Lives Matter is based on "a lie," compared climate change to unicorns and lashed out against diversity

Here are five of the “same old” reasons we’re concerned about Pendley and will be looking for senators to oppose his confirmation if and when he is nominated:

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

In June 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of cancelling a lease that would allow drilling in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine area, land that is culturally important to the Blackfeet Nation. It was a powerful and long-awaited victory.

Some background: 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. 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."

While the Badger-Two Medicine currently enjoys a reprieve from drilling attacks, letting Pendley anywhere near decisions that might affect the landscape 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 then-looming threats to Badger-Two Medicine, before the recent court decision, 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.