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The League of Anti-Environmental Extremists

A new poll suggests the Trump administration—packed to the brim with industry lapdogs and climate skeptics—is significantly more anti-environment than the American public is.

A cabinet meeting (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The number of anti-climate appointees running federal public lands and environmental policy has become, like a great many alarming situations, unnervingly pedestrian three years into the Trump presidency. Particularly after the brazen grift attempts so lazily hidden by Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinkefew headlines are likely to surprise a numbed public. The past week, however, has brought a particularly interesting juxtaposition of news: fresh evidence of the anti-environmental extremism of William Perry Pendley, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) current acting director, and new opinion polling on public land and drilling. Taken together, they’re an over-due chance to recognize this parade of unfit and corrupt presidential appointees for what they are—not just tools of the extraction industry, but the voice of policies significantly more extreme than those backed by the average American.  

The Huffington Post revealed on Monday that Pendley wrote a pair of articles in the early 90s for 21st Century Science & Technology, one of a number of magazines operated by extremist cult leader and oddball political fixture Lyndon LaRouche. The articles decried varying forms of what Pendley considered unjust federal over-reach.

This had been a staple line for LaRouche, and has now been a similar refrain for Pendley, going back decades. Sitting on a panel in 1995, and presumably low on his hyperbole quota for the week, Pendley claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision earlier that day that the Endangered Species Act extended protections for an endangered animal’s habitat would be the beginning of a process inevitably ending in the federal government saying “we want it all, we want everybody’s land, nobody has any rights anymore.” 

Twenty-three years later, snatching up massive tracts of private land is still very much a thriving hobby for the wealthy. But Pendley has remained vigilant. On multiple occasions in 2018, Pendley posted statements on his personal Twitter account in which he used the term “eco-terrorist” to describe demonstrators such as tree-sitters who might stand in the way of exploitative companies. (In fact, it was LaRouche who was among the first to come up with the idea of calling these protestors “terrorists.”) A year later, this past August, Pendley was tapped to run BLM.

When it comes to the current crop of president-appointed federal agency heads, Pendley is the rule, not the exception. In nearly every department, those with extremist climate and public lands views, or, at the least, extremist sympathies, have been hired, appointed, or promoted. 

As laid out in The New Republic’s November issue by Ed Burmila, many of the arguments deployed by Pendley and his ilk, as is true of many right-wingers, center on maintaining the “small government” lie—a misdirection transferable to whatever conservative argument one wants to peddle. In Pendley’s case, the argument is that by rolling back regulations, wealthy politicos and industry lapdogs like himself are looking out for the little guy; in fact, all they’re doing is peddling the ideologies of the Cliven Bundys of the world as mainstream. The ultimate effect is to clear a path by which the heads of industry enrich themselves, frequently rewarding the helpful temporary officials for their efforts. 

Instead of using his platform to actually enact the changes public lands need most, such as the curbing of grazing or a more proactive and long-term approach to handling wildfires, Pendley has instead focused on the “existential threat” of wild horses. Outside of the BLM, the Department of the Interior as a whole has focused less on protecting and stewarding public lands than slashing the size of national parks and public lands for extractive industry use. 

None of this anti-environmentalism started with the Trump Administration. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all pushed, to varying degrees, for the increased domestication of oil and natural gas production on federal lands. Bush was louder and clumsier in diving forward with such misguided efforts, but his Democratic predecessor and successor both peddled in half-measures in their first terms, when loftier goals than those established in the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Accords should have been set. As a result, while the Trump Administration has been particularly brazen in its approach and messaging, it had a fairly clear path on which to push for the mass privatization of public land (the end goal for Pendley and his counterparts throughout the Department of the Interior). And as always, it bears remembering that the path towards privatization of federal lands started when the federal government first stole those lands from Indigenous populations—a long history of appropriation according to the interests of the powerful. 

The Trump Administration is out of favor with the majority of Americans for a host of reasons, not all of them policy-related. But as with family separation, locking children in cages, or openly condoning white supremacist notions, the administration’s anti-environmental crusade is well ahead of where the American public actually stands. The Kaiser Family Foundation, in partnership with the Washington Post, released a study last Friday taking the American public’s temperature on the administration’s drill-baby-drill approach. While 46 percent of the teenagers polled said they had learned “little” to “nothing” about climate change in school, 79 percent of all those polled agreed that humans are causing climate change. Sixty-seven percent of respondents voiced disapproval of Trump’s climate change approach of outright denial. Fifty-one percent said exploratory drilling should be reduced on federal lands, with 53 percent saying it should be reduced offshore.

It is a lot to ask a person working 40-50 hours a week and juggling a family’s worth of responsibilities to find a time to pick through the White House’s three-ring circus of destructive foreign policy, environmental policy, and other positions. But as the poll proved, the average American isn’t dumb, and they can’t be fooled into disbelieving what they see with their own eyes. 

In the past few years, my mother, an empty nester at long last, has started taking camping road trips across the country. Her eventual goal is to have her national parks passport filled with stamps from every park. On a recent phone call from the interstate, she recounted two scenes to me. First, in the Dakotas, she said, oil pumping stations as far as the eye could see dotted the rural landscape—she seemed shocked at how much extraction was going on in our own country. Then she talked about the glaciers, one of the natural wonders she’d long hoped to set eyes on. They hadn’t disappointed, she said. She encouraged me to make the trip out, if I ever had the time and money to do so, as the clock was ticking; although government directives have forced them to remove the signs that say as much, park officials told her the glaciers would be gone in ten to twelve years, melted down past the minimum classification size. One day, they’d likely gone altogether. 

The visual signs of what might be termed late extraction capitalism, or early global warming crisis, are mounting. Many people will soon have family members with direct experience of the matter—and not through pleasure traveling, but more likely through superstorms, wildfires, crop failures, insect-borne epidemics, and more.

To see what is clearly taking a toll on our planet, you don’t need a science degree; you don’t need to work as a coastal fisherman; and you don’t need to have the time or the means to drive across the country. You just need to live outside of one percent and conspiratorial internet forums. Americans are being screwed over. Everyday people, multiple recent polls have shown, largely recognize the reality that the few politicians with the power to proactively prepare and protect the public refuse to acknowledge: For better or worse, the planet’s climate is changing, and humans are changing it. Instead of setting out to solve these issues, government officials in the Trump Administration, and gas and oil industry leaders backing them, are constantly planning how to force through policy proposals that will increase the amount these private companies pump, drill, frack, and mine the land on which the rest of America depends for a healthy ecosystem—and, by extension, for survival. Were it a less serious subject, there might be a hearty, morbid laugh to be had at officials hell-bent on destroying the planet so loosely wielding the term “eco-terrorist” against those who would dare oppose them.