President Trump plans to nominate self-proclaimed "sagebrush rebel" William Perry Pendley to the Senate-confirmed position of director of the Bureau of Land Management, the White House announced today.
The nomination of Pendley — who has been acting BLM chief since last July — was unexpected, coming so late in Trump’s term. He had yet to nominate anyone for the post.
Sources had told E&E News last year that the White House had vetted Pendley and that Trump had been considering nominating the conservative lawyer for months.
"I commend President Trump’s intent to nominate William Perry Pendley who has been a leader at the Bureau of Land Management for nearly a year. He’s doing a great job, including acquiring more than 25,000 acres of public land for expanded recreational access," Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said today in a statement.
Pendley’s confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate is not guaranteed. While he’ll face fierce opposition from Democrats — who have already warned the administration they are staunchly against Pendley holding any BLM leadership position — it’s not certain that moderate Republicans like Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who’s up for reelection this year, will support his nomination.
Senate Democrats, including New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, have vowed to strongly oppose Pendley’s nomination.
"William Perry Pendley has made a career as a zealot, aligning himself with extremists and militants who led the armed standoff with the BLM — the agency he now oversees," Heinrich said in a statement. "Pendley’s beliefs are antithetical to the very idea of America’s public lands and he is glaringly unqualified to run the BLM."
The formal nomination comes just weeks after the Interior Department placed Pendley in the role of "exercising the authority of the director" indefinitely, citing a vague cessation rule authorizing Bernhardt to do so (E&E News PM, June 5).
Bernhardt had previously signed four amended secretarial orders keeping Pendley, whose formal title is deputy director of planning and programs, in place as acting BLM director for specific periods, ranging from 30 days to 90 days.
Two advocacy groups last month filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Pendley’s appointment as acting chief (Greenwire, May 11).
Pendley — who served as a top official under Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt — is a lightning rod for controversy, mostly due to his public statements and writings in the past 30 years opposing federal land ownership, as well as for his work as a lawyer, including as the former president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation.
He served as Interior deputy assistant secretary for energy and minerals during the Reagan administration.
His formal nomination to lead BLM, the nation’s largest public landowner overseeing 245 million acres, will spark howls of protest from conservation and sporting groups.
"President Trump is doubling down on his record as the most anti-nature president in U.S. history," said Kate Kelly, public lands director for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
"The nomination of William Perry Pendley sends a clear signal that Trump plans to move ahead with a radical, sweeping and unpopular sell-off of America’s public lands," added Kelly, a former Interior senior adviser during the Obama administration. "No senator who believes in public lands can vote to confirm this man. Pendley’s nomination is a foolish mistake."
If confirmed by the Senate, Pendley would be the first permanent BLM director in the nearly four years of the Trump administration. Bernhardt, and before him former Secretary Ryan Zinke, has rotated through a series of acting directors; the last permanent BLM director was Neil Kornze, who held the post for the last three years of the Obama administration.
Bernhardt appointed Pendley, who had never worked at BLM, deputy director of policy and programs for the bureau in July (Greenwire, July 15, 2019).
Pendley started a day before Interior formally announced it would relocate BLM’s Washington headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., and move more than 200 other senior-level positions to state offices across the West.
That move, which Pendley said yesterday will be completed by next week, has been extremely contentious. But almost as controversial as the headquarters move was Bernhardt’s decision two weeks later to sign a secretarial order granting Pendley the authority to perform all "functions, duties and responsibilities" of BLM director (E&E News PM, July 29, 2019).
‘I love America’s public lands’
While Pendley, a former Marine, has been employed at BLM for less than a year, the White House pointed out in a nomination statement today that he has "worked to increase recreational opportunities on and access to our Nation’s public lands, heighten concern for the impact of wild horses and burros on public lands, and increase awareness of the Bureau’s multiple-use mission."
Interior appears to have been preparing for his nomination for months.
Pendley has represented BLM in public, including writing numerous newspaper op-eds, appearing on conservative radio talk shows and representing the bureau at congressional budget hearings earlier this year.
He has spent a great deal of time at some of these public appearances defending his past record as an attorney.
At a Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Fort Collins, Colo., last fall, he was asked about previous statements that the Founding Fathers intended federal lands to be transferred to the states. He answered that "those views that I expressed then, that was then, this is now. My personal opinions in that regard are irrelevant."
He was even more direct at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last year, calling it a "misrepresentation of my work and beliefs" to suggest he does not support federal land ownership.
"I love America’s public lands," he said.
But Pendley can expect to face the same tough questioning about his past record from Senate Democrats.
Although he has insisted that his past opinions are "irrelevant," senators will seize on the fact that Pendley, at least until joining BLM last summer, frequently posted to Twitter under the handle @Sagebrush_Rebel. In a number of those posts, Pendley mocked climate science, Democratic lawmakers and the Endangered Species Act.
He likewise criticized BLM staff on an individual level in a January 2018 interview on a television program sponsored by the Independence Institute, a conservative Colorado-based think tank (Greenwire, Aug. 6, 2019).
"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 by the liberal website Media Matters for America. "They’re going to move down the hall, they’re going to move across the country."
Now, if confirmed, Pendley would lead the bureau’s more than 9,400 employees as BLM goes through a major period of transition, relocating most senior Washington-based staff to Grand Junction and other areas out West.