William Perry Pendley Must Go

Oil wells on BLM lands. Photo: BLM.

William Perry Pendley’s nomination to lead the Bureau of Land Management has been withdrawn and while President Trump offered no explanation for withdrawing Pendley’s nomination, it seems he didn’t have the votes necessary for Senate confirmation. The Senate Democrats were united against him and a few GOP Senators found themselves in an election year hot seat and being pressed to weigh in on Pendley’s unpopular position on selling off public lands (not to mention his record of racism and disdain for the “other” BLM, Black Lives Matter).

Pendley was hostile to public lands and wildlife long before Trump installed him for his unlawfully-extended tenure as “Deputy Director acting in the capacity of Director” of the Bureau. His efforts to interfere with the public lands date back to his days as a livestock industry hired gun when he was working for the same Mountain States Legal Foundation that gave us former and infamously anti-environmental Secretaries of the Interior James Watt and Gale Norton.

When, after two decades of his illegal livestock trespassing on public lands, Cliven Bundy burst onto the national scene with an armed insurrection in Bunkerville, Nevada in 2014, Pendley was sympathetic. He wrote in the National Review that westerners “were not surprised by the rancher uprising,” and he called for “another Sagebrush Rebellion.” In January of 2016, even as the Bundy sons and their rancher allies staged an armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Pendley penned an opinion advocating for all federal lands to be sold. Rather than being marginalized for these extreme positions, President Trump promoted him to take charge of American’s largest public land agency.

Pendley stepped into his role as public-lands-destroyer-in-chief with relish, fast-tracking the agency’s unpopular — and likely corrupt — move into an oil industry office complex in Grand Junction, Colorado. This move drained the agency of key staffers who might otherwise hold the line against the rampant exploitation of public lands that have been underway since Trump took office.

Pendley has hijacked the Bureau’s priorities in other ways. Last September, Pendley made headlines by claiming wild horses were the Bureau’s number-one problem. Never mind the fact that wild horses are outnumbered at least fourteen to one by cattle on western public lands, or that livestock overgrazing and cheatgrass – a fire-prone invasive weed – is out of control across much of the 88 percent of western public lands where there isn’t a single wild horse. Never mind that fossil fuel extraction on public lands is fueling a climate crisis with global ramifications. Never mind the plight of the sage grouse, disappearing despite millions of taxpayer dollars and years of planning and research. Pendley doesn’t acknowledge these problems as issues for the Bureau because these problems are caused by the industries for which Pendley has been lobbying his entire career.

In November 2019, Pendley wrote in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that federal law enforcement should stand down, because “local law enforcement bears primary responsibility for enforcing state and federal law.” This policy statement explicitly put county sheriffs in charge of enforcing – or ignoring – federal laws on federal lands. It is a dangerous and reckless idea, and goes against longstanding interpretations of federal jurisdiction.

The backlash against Pendley and his radical ideas has been building. It began on September 26, 2019, when a dozen leading Senators wrote to the Interior Secretary opposing Pendley’s continued role atop the Bureau. Then, in late December, 91 conservation groups demanded he step down. In May of 2020, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Western Watersheds Project sued to remove Pendley for overstaying interim director term limits, and Montana Governor Steve Bullock followed suit with a lawsuit of his own. Trump then decided to circumvent the lawsuit by nominating Pendley to the permanent position, but Pendley’s 2017 comments denigrating the Black Lives Matter movement resurfaced, and soon the writing was on the wall. The nomination was withdrawn, but Pendley remains at the helm in his unlawful “acting” capacity.

It is clear that Pendley is a servant to the livestock industry and the fracking barons, rather than a public servant. His continued presence at an agency that manages much of the West is an offense to every American who loves public lands, cares about wildlife, or simply wants the beauty of wild landscapes to endure for generations to come. It’s high time for Pendley to pack his bags and move on.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.