LARAMIE, Wyo. — William Perry Pendley is well-acquainted with his perception among environmentalists, conservationists and even federal government bureaucrats: onetime Reagan administration official, skilled legal foe and self-proclaimed sagebrush rebel.
And in the weeks since his elevation to lead the Bureau of Land Management — the agency charged with overseeing 245 million acres of surface lands and 700 million acres of mineral estate — he’s seemingly staged a media campaign to push back.
"Public accountability is important in public service, as I am entrusted with upholding the values of this public institution in an ethical and legal manner," Pendley wrote in an op-ed in The Denver Post last week. "But, recent attacks on my character and misrepresentations of my past require that the record be set straight."
In that op-ed, as well as in interviews with conservative outlets including The Washington Times and a Montana radio program, Pendley rebutted arguments that he has long advocated for the sale or transfer of federal lands and emphasized that he will "follow orders" from the Trump administration.
"I’ve spent 30 years as an attorney working with rural Westerners trying to achieve this, which is essentially, ‘Hey, these people live here because they love being in the West, but at the same time, they need to pay for their schools, they need to pay for their hospitals, they need to have jobs and they need to be able to get their kids to come back,’" Pendley told The Washington Times.
He then praised President Trump for developing "a true conservation and stewardship legacy."
"And what that means is taking care of the lands, expanding public access, enhancing visitor experience and, obviously, engaging in the multiple-use activities that Congress has mandated," Pendley added.
As the longtime president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation before his return to government service, Pendley is not unfamiliar with shaping public perception, both in the courtroom and in his regular contact with reporters (Greenwire, Jan. 2, 2014).
But documents from Pendley’s stint in the Reagan administration — archived at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, where he received his law degree — offer insight into his early training on how to handle the media.
An eight-page memo — saved among the 30 boxes of correspondence, speeches and notes that Pendley donated to the university — shows officials under then-Interior Secretary James Watt gathered in Williamsburg, Va., in November 1982 for a "fall round-up."
The bulk of the typed document is a handout signed by Watt’s personal secretary, Kittie Smith, and titled: "Selling Your Program Through the Media (You are the Message)."
"Use your own words," reads one subsection.
"Reporters will often seek to replace your carefully selected language with their own," the document continues. "You use your language simply because it is precise, correct and utilizes carefully chosen words to put the correct gloss on your efforts."
Another subsection is labeled, "Remember your audience."
"You are not really talking to the reporter. With luck, you are talking through the reporter to the American public, a public to which you wish to sell your program. … Avoid insider jargon or bureaucratese. Speak in simple, straightforward language."
The advice also included healthy skepticism of the media and noted that journalists want to look like "the heroes of the 1970’s journalists: Dan Rather’s and Mike Wallace’s ’60 Minutes’ and the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein."
"They need to make you look bad — bad meaning incompetent, lazy, ill-informed, or worse, a ‘tool’ of those the reporter regards as enemies of the people," the document states. "Assume the relationship is, and always will be, adversarial! However, don’t allow yourself to become angry. It’s a luxury you cannot afford."
In addition to media training, the document included two pages of "behavioral profile" notes for Interior officials.
The document details behavioral styles under the "DISC" system defined in 1928 by psychologist William Moulton Marston. It classifies individuals by dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness.
It lists Pendley as "D," which is defined as: "D = Dominance — Emphasis is on shaping the environment by overcoming opposition to accomplish results." His description includes a "classic profile pattern" note that states: "developer." No definition is offered.
Watt is also included on the sheet as "D" and "result oriented."
Whether Pendley took those messages to heart at the time is unclear — he made no notes on the document, unlike others in his files — but he seized on the method in his recent Denver Post op-ed.
Pendley disputed a New York Times story that he asserted mischaracterized his legal career at the Mountain States Legal Foundation and clients he represented.
"Recreation on public lands is fundamental to our mission at BLM, and the argument that I somehow seek to deny others such opportunities is completely baseless," Pendley wrote. "Like myself, those who sought my professional legal assistance have a special relationship with these lands: Millions of families — like many of my former clients — will remain on and about land that others visit as tourists or passersby."
Pendley also criticized media reports that seized on a 2016 opinion piece in the National Review.
In the Denver Post op-ed, Pendley asserted that the National Review article was an "academic" exploration of "the Western debate over federal lands" rather than an endorsement of the sell-off of federal lands.
"I wrote that many Westerners believed the problems they faced then with Carter — and, when that article was penned, President Obama — would not be solved until much multiple-use land, but not parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, were transferred. That was their view, and I believe I did it justice," Pendley wrote. "Personally, my view was somewhat different because I had watched President Ronald Reagan diffuse the original ‘Sagebrush Rebellion’ to federal land management efforts with his good neighbor policy."
Among the documents from Pendley’s archives, however, are notes that suggest the sale of "all BLM lands E. of Miss.," as well as another that suggested all Interior agencies would identify 5% of suitable lands for disposal. Watt would ultimately propose a plan to sell off 35 million acres of public lands (Greenwire, Aug. 30).
Could a nomination be next?
But whether Pendley will have to keep pushing back against critics as he leads BLM remains to be seen — his tenure expires Sept. 30, barring an extension from Secretary David Bernhardt.
As he nears the end of his third year in office, Trump has yet to nominate anyone to lead BLM, forcing Interior to instead appoint a series of individuals "exercising the authority of the director" to head the agency.
Pendley was considered a long-shot contender for the secretary’s office when then-Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his departure in late 2018 (Greenwire, Jan. 29).
During the Congressional Western Caucus’ recent meeting in Lake Tahoe, Calif., Karen Budd-Falen, Interior’s deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife, said she had "no idea" whether Trump planned to officially nominate Pendley as BLM director.
"I work on Fish and Wildlife Service issues, and I’m not involved in any of the appointments or how they are selected. I knew about [Pendley] when the whole rest of the public knew about it," Budd-Falen said.
But she did dismiss concerns over Pendley and his ideas regarding federal land management in a brief interview with E&E News.
"I think it’s just something to report about," said the former Wyoming property rights attorney and longtime critic of BLM’s policies, who herself was once in the running to lead the agency (Greenwire, Oct. 6, 2017).
Budd-Falen said President Trump had made "completely clear" that the federal government is not going to transfer its public lands. "We’re not transferring federal lands. So we’re not transferring lands."
She added: "There’s no one person who’s going to change the course at Interior except David Bernhardt."
"So everything we do has to be in line with his priorities, and his priorities are in line with the president’s priorities. So I think it’s a great sound bite, but I don’t think it really means anything," Budd-Falen said, referring to fears that Pendley’s appointment portends a divestiture of the federal estate.
Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Paul Gosar likewise said he wasn’t sure whether Trump would nominate Pendley to the post.
"I’ve stopped trying to guess with this administration. It’s hard to know who’s leading," the Arizona Republican said.