Taking aim at the newly appointed acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, Sen. Jon Tester is seeking answers from William Perry Pendley to questions about his past statements regarding anti-public lands and anti-federal government sentiments.
“You have a long record of opposing federal land management and advocating for selling off the public lands that you now oversee,” Tester wrote in a letter dated Aug. 7.
The letter was issued shortly before the National Wildlife Federation and all of its Western affiliates, including the Montana Wildlife Federation, sent a similar letter to congressional leaders expressing “grave concern that your Congressional authority is being undermined by the Administration, and, as a result, our country’s public lands hang in the balance.”
Pendley — a Wyoming native, conservative lawyer and writer who has argued for selling off the nation's public lands — was appointed to the BLM position on July 29 by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. The BLM manages nearly 250 million acres of largely wild public lands, minerals and other resources across the West.
Calling Pendley's appointment an "end run around the Senate's responsibility to oversee and confirm federal leadership positions," Tester requested that Pendley “clarify” his history and “provide background on your vision for the future of federal land management.”
One of Tester's listed concerns is that in Montana, Pendley has represented Solenex LLC which is suing the federal government over canceled drilling leases in the Badger-Two Medicine, a 130,000-acre region sacred to the Blackfeet Tribe.
In his letter, Tester asks Pendley if he still believes drilling the Badger-Two Medicine is “something the tribe cannot stop.”
Sen. Daines has called for Pendley to recuse himself on issues where he has past conflicts of interests. Rep. Greg Gianforte’s staff has said the congressman believes the Department of Interior has controls in place to prevent any problems.
The Montana Wilderness Association has called on Daines and Tester to push for Pendley’s removal from office and has encouraged its membership to write the senators expressing their concerns about the acting director.
“This is yet more evidence confirming that the Department of the Interior under the current administration is intent on selling out our public lands to unfettered industrial development and perhaps selling them out of the public domain entirely,” wrote Kayje Booker, MWA policy and advocacy director.
In a letter to the editor, Chuck Denowh of the United Property Owners of Montana call such environmentalists’ claims “hysterical,” adding that Pendley will bring “a wealth of expertise on federal land management, and all indications are he will be a great benefit to Western states.”
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This is not Pendley’s first government position. He was a midlevel Interior appointee in the Reagan administration. For decades he has championed ranchers and others in standoffs with the federal government over grazing and other uses of public lands. He has written books accusing federal authorities and environmental advocates of "tyranny" and "waging war on the West." He argued in a 2016 National Review article that the "Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold."
In tweets this summer, Pendley has welcomed Trump administration moves to open more federal land to mining and oil and gas development and other private business use, and he has called the oil and gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, "an energy, economic, AND environmental miracle!"
The Interior Department appointed Pendley as the policy director at BLM, which manages one out of every 10 acres in the United States and 30% of the nation's minerals, in mid-July.
A conservation group called Pendley an "ideological zealot" and pointed to the federal agency's announcement earlier this month that it planned to move the BLM's headquarters from Washington and disperse the headquarters staff among Western states.
Pendley's "ascending to the top of BLM just as it is being reorganized strongly suggests the administration is positioning itself to liquidate our shared public lands," said Phil Hanceford, conservation director for The Wilderness Society conservation advocacy group.
The Department adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands, according to an email from Interior spokeswoman Molly Block.
Block said agency management plans are developed to allow for a range of uses including energy development, cattle grazing, recreation and timber harvest while protecting scientific, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archaeological values.
An analysis of six BLM proposed management plans by the Pew Charitable Trust for parts of the Western United States found they significantly reduce protections that have been in place for decades and open up new land for mining and oil and gas.
But Utah cattle rancher and county commissioner Leland Pollock said the Pendley appointment is the latest indication that the Trump administration is returning BLM to its original mission of ensuring that public lands are open to multiple uses. That includes mining, ranching, cattle grazing, ATV riding, hunting, mountain biking and hiking, he said.
He said the administration has made clear to him and others who had pushed for state control of federal lands that it has no intention of going that route. The 55-year-old is a commissioner in Garfield County in southern Utah, which has 93 percent federally owned lands.
"He's going to manage this thing just simply the way it was supposed to be managed," Pollock said about Pendley.