On the campaign trail in 1980, Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan threw his support to the Sagebrush Rebellion — declaring himself a fellow "rebel" opposed to federal land ownership as he sought to win the White House — and handing a political victory to a burgeoning movement.
And, as he endorsed the push in states like Nevada and Utah to transfer control of federal lands, Reagan himself claimed a landslide win across the West.
More than four decades later, President Trump — despite previously opposing federal lands sales to states — appears to be emulating his predecessor and aligning his administration with the Sagebrush Rebellion before what is expected to be a hotly contested 2020 election.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last month appointed conservative lawyer William Perry Pendley — an avowed sagebrush rebel who served as a top official under Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt — to temporarily lead the Bureau of Land Management through Sept. 30 (E&E News PM, July 29).
Other recent additions include Karen Budd-Falen, an advocate for private property rights and an attorney who currently serves as the Interior Department’s deputy solicitor for fish, wildlife and parks.
For a brief stint in June, Bernhardt elevated Budd-Falen to acting Interior assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks — a key position that oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. Trump nominated Robert Wallace in May to fill the position, and the Senate confirmed him in June.
Budd-Falen, and especially Pendley, have sparked alarm among some Interior observers, including former senior BLM officials, as well as conservation and sporting groups who worry that their goal is to dismantle the agencies they serve and shift ownership of public lands to the states.
They note that Pendley remains committed to his roots: He posts to Twitter under the handle @Sagebrush_Rebel, though he has taken a break since joining BLM. Still, earlier posts are replete with attacks on climate science and the Endangered Species Act, which he labeled "a joke" in a Feb. 4 post. He also decried what he called the "endangered species cartel" comprised of "Bureaucrats, left-wing nonprofit groups, and highly paid ‘scientists’" in a post last year.
Pendley likewise criticized BLM staffers in a January 2018 interview on a public television program created and hosted by the Independence Institute, a conservative Colorado-based think tank.
"These agencies, these employees, they’re not personally liable, they’re not personally responsible for the harm that they do," Pendley said in remarks highlighted last week by the liberal Media Matters for America. "They’re going to move down the hall, they’re going to move across the country."
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers sent out an "action alert" to its members last week. In the first 24 hours they responded by sending more than 10,000 form letters to senators, opposing Pendley’s appointment as acting director and his dual role as the bureau’s deputy director of policy and programs.
"When you put Pendley at the top, somebody who has made a career out of wanting to destroy our public lands system, that’s a very chilling thing, and he needs to go," said Land Tawney, Backcountry’s president and CEO, told E&E News.
Others say this has been building for years, since the armed standoff between federal agents and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in 2014, and the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016 by ranchers and militia members led by two of Bundy’s sons.
Trump has made it a priority to undo most Obama-era conservation strategies.
"Trump has tapped into all kinds of long-simmering resentments against environmental laws that burden industry, impinge on private property, annoy red state politicians and otherwise impede the looting of public resources for private gain," said Pat Parenteau, senior counsel at the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School.
But others say the personal attacks, particularly the criticism of Pendley, are uncalled for and without merit.
"It’s reprehensible we attack the person rather than the idea," said Roger Marzulla, a former assistant attorney general during the Reagan administration who worked with Pendley when he was at Interior.
It’s OK to disagree with Pendley and Budd-Falen on the issues, he said. "But in terms of character, in terms of ability, in terms of intelligence and thoughtfulness and commitment, I’m not aware of anybody who can challenge [the qualifications] of any of these people," Marzulla said.
A rebellion begins
To understand why Pendley and Budd-Falen have sparked such concern, one has to understand the history of the grassroots movement, begun in the late 1970s, called the Sagebrush Rebellion. It arose to protest federal land management policies during President Carter’s administration.
At a 1979 campaign event, Reagan slammed Carter’s use of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to set aside hundreds of millions of acres of land in Alaska as monument lands.
"I think the federal government is land greedy and is holding onto land that it was never intended to hold onto. I don’t think it’s right, and I certainly think it’s wrong to take this state, with all its potential, and do what they are doing to it," Reagan said, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
Congress ultimately passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in November 1980, a bipartisan approach to designating the lands as federal property. Carter signed it into law.
But following his election in 1980, Reagan would go on to tell the League for the Advancement of States’ Equal Rights — an organization whose membership included Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Ted Stevens of Alaska — that he would seek a "sagebrush solution," and according to news reports at the time, vowed via telegram to give states an "equitable share of public lands and their natural resources."
Once in office, Reagan unsuccessfully pushed plans to dispose of millions of acres of public lands in sales to private owners, and he installed Watt as Interior secretary. Watt, in turn, appointed Pendley and others like James Cason, now Interior’s associate deputy secretary, into his administration.
Later iterations of the movement included a legal challenge to federal land ownership in the late 1990s in Nye County, Nev., that was affiliated with what would become the "Sagebrush Rebellion II."
In that case, Nye County approved an ordinance declaring the county, not the federal government, owned the land within its borders — a significant claim, since more than 90% of the county is federal land. The county hired Marzulla to defend the ordinance after the Justice Department challenged it.
The case drew national attention after a Nye County commissioner used a bulldozer to block a national forest road and, according to press reports at the time, threatened to have a Forest Service ranger arrested if the ranger or anyone else tried to remove him. The Justice Department compared the actions of Nye County’s leaders to segregationist leaders in the 1960s-era South who resisted civil rights legislation.
In the end, a federal district court in Las Vegas ruled that the county ordinance was illegal and that the federal government has sovereignty over its own land.
But similar efforts, mostly demanding the federal government transfer federal lands to individual states, persisted during the Obama administration and even today.
Some connect the dots today and see a clear connection between the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Pendley and Budd-Falen appointments, and the top priorities of the Trump administration.
Pendley, a former Marine during the Vietnam War, served as Interior deputy assistant secretary for energy and minerals during the Reagan administration and worked with Watt.
Parenteau recalls visiting Watt in his office at Interior’s headquarters shortly after Watt received Senate confirmation. Parenteau, who at the time was vice president for conservation at the National Wildlife Federation, said that shortly into the meeting Watt handed him and Tom Kimball, NWF’s former president, a list of his top 10 priorities as secretary.
Among the priorities: open up sensitive lands containing "strategic minerals"; delegate Endangered Species Act authority to the states; streamline National Environmental Policy Act reviews for energy projects; and expand off-highway vehicle access on public lands. All of those, in some form, are Trump administration priorities today.
The top 10 list also included privatizing or selling federal lands, which the Trump administration has said publicly it does not support.
But Pendley and Budd-Falen clearly do.
Pendley can ‘absolutely’ affect BLM
Some fear that Pendley, even in a limited time as acting BLM director, could have a big impact on policy.
Among them is Mat Millenbach, who retired from BLM in 2002 after more than three decades, including serving as director of BLM’s Montana-Dakotas and Utah state offices. He also served a two-year stint during the Clinton administration as deputy director of operations — the highest career official at the bureau, overseeing BLM’s day-to-day operations and its nearly 10,000 employees.
Millenbach said he is "perplexed" by Bernhardt’s decision to advance Pendley to acting BLM director.
He said Pendley could dramatically affect bureau policy and operations by interfering with ongoing revisions to resource management plans and by removing state directors and other top bureau officials.
"It’s an extremely influential position, there’s no two ways around that," he said. "Pendley could come in there and start replacing those people. He’s the guy who runs that stuff if he wants to."
None of that would surprise Dean Bibles, who retired from BLM in 1996 after more than three decades serving in a variety of senior positions, including stints as director of the bureau’s Arizona and Oregon-Washington state offices.
"I would say this is something to be very concerned about," he said.
Bibles’ view of Pendley was cemented after a meeting he said he had with Pendley in the early 1980s. At the time, Pendley was at Interior and Bibles was BLM’s assistant director for lands and resources in Washington, D.C.
Pendley, he said, summoned him up to a conference room at Interior’s headquarters one afternoon. When he walked in, the conference room was filled with executives and representatives of the oil and gas industry.
"It didn’t take me long to realize they were developing and writing regulations" for the industry, Bibles said. "I just said, ‘William, this is not legal. You don’t develop regulations with the people you are dealing with’" in a regulatory setting.
"He said, ‘Well, if you’re uncomfortable you don’t have to stay.’ And I said, ‘I am more than uncomfortable,’ and I left," Bibles said. "That was one of the few times I just got up and left a meeting."
He added, "That always stuck with me."
Bibles, Millenbach and others who agreed to talk to E&E News said they believe the end game is to weaken BLM, make it ineffective and eventually convince lawmakers and the public that it’s no longer needed.
"They’ve both worked for years on the side of getting rid of public lands, and the position that we don’t need BLM because there shouldn’t be any federal lands to begin with," said BLM-retiree Elaine Zielinski, referring to Pendley and Budd-Falen.
"I truly do believe they are just trying to make the BLM ineffective, then they can say we have the solution for that," added Zielinski, who retired in 2009 after more than 30 years at the bureau, including a six-year run as director of BLM’s Arizona State Office.
John Leshy, who served as Interior’s top lawyer during the Clinton administration, noted Pendley will be able to make many decisions that could simply slip below the public’s radar.
"Someone like the acting director of the BLM can make scores of decisions over the course of the week: How fast to do this, how slow to walk that, what position to take on this particular issue, or what to tell the Justice Department about how to defend a particular case," Leshy said, pointing to a range of issues from the approval of resource management plans to program budgets.
He added: "There’s all kind of low-visibility decisions that can really have long-term effects."
And even if current leadership at Interior doesn’t directly seek to dispose of public lands or dismantle agency’s like BLM wholesale, the sagebrush rebels at its helm could hinder the department.
Leshy asserted that the installation of leaders opposed to their agency’s basic mandates could demoralize agency staff and prompt the "exodus of some really good people."
"They are looking at the impending doom or the sort of end of civilization as they know it," Leshy said, noting that some officials like Budd-Falen have "spent their careers not only attacking public lands but the people who manage public lands."
Budd-Falen once attempted to sue individual BLM employees under an anti-racketeering law normally used against organized crime syndicates, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.
Although her argument won over the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ultimately rejected Budd-Falen’s premise in 2007.
"If I was up in the halls of Interior and saw her coming, I’d probably go someplace else," Millenbach said, referring to that case. "That’s not the kind of person you want to be around."
Suing BLM employees apparently didn’t bother Pendley. In a 2017 interview with E&E News, Pendley praised Budd-Falen’s initiative in that lawsuit.
"She did a very good job on that," he said at the time. "Regrettably, not all of the justices agreed with her" (Greenwire, June 16, 2017).
Appeal to ‘the base’
Still, it remains to be seen whether Trump could soon embrace the Sagebrush Rebellion’s long-sought goal of forcing the federal government to abandon public lands to respective states.
During the 2016 campaign Trump opposed the transfer of lands to states, stating he was concerned the lands could be sold to private interests in the event of budget shortfalls (E&E Daily, Feb. 22, 2016).
A White House aide referred comments to Interior, where spokeswoman Melissa Brown said the agency "adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands."
"The BLM is mandated by Congress to manage public lands under multiple use and sustained yield principles," Brown added. "When BLM develops resource management plans, which guide how the BLM will manage public land over a period of time, careful consideration is given to a range of resource uses and values — including energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvest, while protecting scientific, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archaeological values."
In the end, Trump’s addition of sagebrush rebels to his team could be little more than window dressing as he seeks reelection next year.
"Everything that Trump is saying, tweeting, doing, is about the 2020 election and hanging on to the base," Parenteau said.
Leshy said he agrees.
"It is a dance, and it’s a challenge for the Republicans to keep both ends of the spectrum happy," he said. "Legally, I think it’s hard for Pendley to change the federal government’s position on that constitutional issue [of land ownership]. Nevertheless, it certainly is telling the Cliven Bundys of the world and their ilk, ‘I’ve got a friend in D.C. and I’ve just got to hang on.’"
Marzulla strongly rejects that notion. Rather, he said the Trump administration is adhering to its oft-cited pledge to "be a good neighbor" to states with large volumes of federal lands. Hiring Pendley and Budd-Falen is an honest attempt to "bring people in who actually live in the areas impacted dramatically by these agencies."
He added, "I wouldn’t be so cynical as to say it’s all window dressing, but rather trying to get some diversity here in Washington, so that it’s not just inside-the-Beltway people talking to each other incestuously."