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The Trump Official Who Could Obliterate Public Lands

Bureau of Land Management Director William Perry Pendley believes the oil and gas industry should be allowed to plunder the country's natural resources.

David McNew/Getty Images

It’s a natural fit for an administration as chaotic and corrupt as President Donald Trump’s that William Perry Pendley, who loathes America’s public lands, was picked last September, and reappointed in January, to manage them. The Bureau of Land Management, which Pendley now directs, oversees more acreage of the public domain than any other federal agency. Thus far, protests from outraged environmentalists—who view the move as “akin to naming a notorious arsonist as chief of the local fire department,” in the words of Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.—have failed to disrupt his tenure.

At stake are 250 million acres of grassland, steppe, desert, and forest that BLM oversees, along with the agency’s 700 million subsurface acres, rich with oil and gas and hard-rock minerals. Pendley’s entire career has been about liberating the extractive industry from environmental laws, enabling companies to pillage the lands he is now entrusted to protect. If freed to denude the soil, poison the water, and foul the air, oil companies, gas frackers, and hard-rock mining conglomerates stand to make billions of dollars in profits from exploiting the BLM domain. 

To understand Pendley’s worldview, you have to understand the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the right-wing nonprofit law firm in Colorado he honchoed for 30 years as president and chief legal counsel. The MSLF was founded in 1977 with money from Joseph Coors, the hard-right Colorado beer magnate, to counter what was perceived in the 1970s as the rising influence of public-interest environmental law firms. (Coors also provided start-up cash in 1973 for the conservative Heritage Foundation.) The MSLF’s first president, James Watt, who worked there from 1977 to 1981 and went on to become Interior Secretary under Ronald Reagan, declared that the group’s purpose was to “fight in the courts those bureaucrats and no-growth advocates who create a challenge to individual liberty and economic freedoms.”  

MSLF’s real goal, as the roster of its funders reveals, is the warping of public lands policy to benefit private extractive interests. Its big-money donors have included oil, gas, timber, and mining corporations, notably ExxonMobil, Texaco, and Phillips Petroleum. A 1990 piece in the Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review observed that under Watt there were “three overlapping main themes” of the “revolution” the MSLF sought to achieve in public lands policy: “(1) federal ownership of land, if not unconstitutional or unconscionable, is at least A Bad Idea; (2) to the extent that land remains in federal ownership, valuable land should be reclassified or transferred to make them more easily accessible to resource developers; and (3) the resources of the federal lands should be made available to private developers to the maximum possible extent, at minimum cost, and with the fewest possible regulatory restrictions.” At Interior under Reagan, Watt advocated for the privatization of 35 million acres of public land. In a 1983 profile in Newsweek magazine, he compared environmental activists to Nazis.

Pendley, a 74-year-old former Marine who ran the MSLF from 1981 until his appointment last year at the BLM, pursued Watt’s vision with admirable tenacity and has continued to pursue it in his new office. This month, he greenlighted rampant expansion of oil and gas drilling on previously off-limits areas, including on one million acres in central California. On January 17, he announced the loosening of regulations for the public lands cattle industry, making it easier for livestock operators to violate federal environmental laws and not face consequences. He has sowed chaos at BLM by uprooting long-standing Washington D.C. staff with a forced move of the agency’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, where energy companies rule the roost. The goal, his critics say, is to bring BLM regulators into closer quarters with the oil and gas industry to be more easily captured. In response, staffers in the D.C. quarters have attempted to unionize: The National Treasury Employees Union filed a petition to represent BLM employees with the Federal Labor Relations Authority in December.

Pendley’s actions are accompanied by extremist and inflammatory rhetoric supporting lawlessness on the public lands. Pendley has praised the criminal Cliven Bundy clan, whose infamous armed standoffs against federal land regulators amounted to acts of domestic terrorism. When Bundyite militiamen pointed sniper rifles at BLM law officers in Nevada, in 2014, and took over at gunpoint the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016—in both instances announcing their willingness to kill federal law officers if need be—Pendley cheered in the pages of National Review, reiterating the Bundy family’s crackpot theory that the Constitution forbids federal ownership of land.  

In an op-ed published last November in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Pendley stated it is now policy that BLM law officers will defer to self-proclaimed “constitutionalist” county sheriffs who have vowed not to enforce federal environmental laws on public lands. Pendley’s Review-Journal piece was “a dog whistle to the extremists of the anti-public-lands movement,” wrote Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental nonprofit in Idaho. That’s in part because of the belief system of the “constitutionalist” sheriffs, not mentioned in Pendley’s piece. The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which Pendley has long claimed as an ally, declares on its website that “federal agencies now claiming control of land within a state should be drastically downsized and/or dismantled. County sheriffs in these states should take their rightful position and use their authority to assist in the transfer of control of the land.”

Dennis McLane, who was deputy chief of law enforcement at BLM from 1996 to 2003, explained to me how this would shape out on the ground. County sheriffs allied in the CSPOA, he said, would serve as the local vanguard for the evisceration of federal public lands regulations. “In many western counties,” McLane told me, “the sheriffs would use their newfound authority to just ignore the enforcement of federal resource laws.” In other words, it would be a free-for-all of extractive interests engaging in lawless behavior for maximum profits—the vision of James Watt and the MSLF.

There’s also a more immediate reason to be worried about the new BLM position. “That stuff Pendley said about being subservient to sheriffs is downright dangerous,” John Freemuth, the Cecil Andrus endowed chair of Environment and Public Lands at Boise State University, told me. “When you’re a BLM ranger out there in the middle of nowhere, and you run into these crazy public lands people, like the followers of the Bundys, I wonder what’s going to happen when they say, ‘Your boss says you’re subservient, and I’m going to do whatever I want, and you’re not going to stop me.’ It’s one of the most irresponsible things I’ve seen in public lands management.”

The risk of physical conflict isn’t merely hypothetical. In a study published last May, Zoe Nemerever, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, found counties run by constitutionalist sheriffs were 50 percent “more likely to have violence against BLM employees than other counties, even when controlling for other factors.” The decisions and pronouncements of elected and appointed officials, Nemerever wrote, “may promote political violence against federal employees.”

On January 13, 91 green groups called for Pendley’s removal in a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Pendley’s “actions betray BLM’s mission and demonstrate his lack of fitness to lead it,” they argued, calling Pendley an “existential threat” to public lands. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, one of the groups that signed the letter, is now actively looking for a means to unseat Pendley via the courts, its senior legal counsel, Peter Jenkins, calling it one of the group’s most important goals in 2020.

The legal argument against Pendley is that his appointment violates the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which requires the BLM director to be confirmed by the Senate, as also required for the directors of all federal agencies under Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution. A loophole in administrative law called re-delegation allows temporary delegation of authority during transitions between presidencies, avoiding senatorial oversight. But typically this re-delegation period lasts just a few weeks, after which the new president appoints agency heads who must face off with Congress. The Trump administration has kept directors at the BLM, without confirmation, for three years—something it has also done at the Fish and Wildlife Service and at the National Park Service. “Pendley is not the acting director,” Jenkins told me. “He is called the ‘deputy director exercising the authority of the director.’ Is that proper? Is that in compliance with the law? No. We’ve urged senators to challenge it, but they haven’t done so.” PEER intends to file a lawsuit on the matter later this year.

There’s a certain irony to these proceedings, given Pendley’s ideology. If courts uphold the letter of the Constitution that Pendley considers so dear, his days at BLM may come to a close sooner than he expects.