With Pendley Toppled, the Alt-Right’s Public Land Agenda Starts to Crumble

Last Friday, a lawsuit brought by Governor Steve Bullock (D-MT) yielded a ruling that President Trump’s interim appointment of William Perry Pendley’s to head the BLM was illegal, and that the decisions made while Pendley was in charge are illegal too.

William Perry Pendley has long been a fringe activist affiliated with the alt-right movement to end public lands, and federal government’s management of them. He wrote opinion pieces in the conservative National Review siding with the Bundys when they organized a heavily-armed mob, complete with snipers, that interfered with the federal roundup of Bundy’s illegally trespassing cattle, and another article calling for the sale of all federal public lands. His Twitter handle was even @Sagebrush_Rebel.

Pendley isn’t the first public lands extremist, even in the Trump administration. Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen actually represented Cliven Bundy himself in the appeal challenging the original closure of Bundy’s grazing leases on what would eventually become Gold Butte National Monument. At the same time the Bundy crew was taking over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Budd-Falen was stirring up county governments in Oregon to adopt county plans that, ion a twisted legal theory, might be used to have counties dictate the contents of federal land-use plans, to the benefit of local extractive industries. Although Budd-Falen lobbied to be appointed BLM director, ultimately it became obvious that she would not survive Senate confirmation, and she was appointed instead to the lesser attorney post of Deputy Solicitor, which requires no Senate approval.

The history of alt-right attempts to stage takeovers of America’s public lands dates back to the 1940s, but cropped up more recently in the Reagan administration. Reagan himself famously proclaimed, “I am a Sagebrush Rebel,” and he appointed as his first Interior Secretary the notoriously anti-environmental James Watt, like Pendley a product of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. George W. Bush recapitulated Reagan’s alt-right lands agenda by appointing Gale Norton to helm Interior, herself a Mountain States protégé of Watt’s. Thus, more often than not over the past four decades, Republican presidential administrations put a public lands extremist of the Bundy persuasion in charge of a major lands and wildlife agency.

During the first year of the Trump administration, long before Pendley’s appointment , the alt-right agenda started gathering steam with a secret meeting that brought state and county proponents of extractive industries together with the BLM to plot a local government takeover of public lands. Several environmental groups were tipped off and listened in, and were able to bring to light efforts to put conservative counties and states in the driver’s seat of public land decisionmaking, restrict environmental reviews, squelch Freedom of Information Act document availability, and otherwise dismantle federal public land protections. Trump’s gutting of NEPA, the concept of “outcomes-based grazing” to put ranchers in charge of managing public-land grazing leases, and a dismantling of grazing regulations are the anti-environmental fruits of this poisonous tree.

William Perry Pendley was appointed to the Trumped-up BLM position of “Deputy Director serving in the capacity of the Director,” a dodge to avoid a Senate confirmation process likely to deny Pendley the leadership position and embarrass the Trump administration. Selecting an oil industry office complex in Grand Junction, Colorado as his new BLM headquarters, Pendley proceeded to threaten senior BLM staff with termination if they didn’t relocate. It was a bald-faced scheme to put the agency firmly under the thumb of the minerals and livestock industries.

Things started to unravel for Pendley in the fall of 2019, when key Senators drafted a letter objecting to his leadership, and when Pendley’s controversial remarks at a Colorado gathering of journalists scapegoated wild horses as “an existential threat” to public lands and the agency’s top priority, even while horse impacts were dwarfed by the environmental destruction caused by federally-approved livestock, and myriad other BLM-permitted problems. Things got worse a month later, when Pendley directed BLM law-enforcement to defer to local sheriffs when enforcing the law on federal lands. Conservationists immediately exposed this as a sop to the Bundy-ally Constitutional Sheriffs, who seek to dismantle federal authority and environmental protections on public lands. As the year ended, 91 conservation groups demanded Pendley’s ouster.

Ultimately, two conservation groups sued to remove Pendley, and later Governor Bullock launched a similar lawsuit of his own. Hoping to dodge the litigation, Trump finally nominated Pendley to head the BLM, but just as quickly withdrew the nomination when it became obvious that he wouldn’t survive the confirmation process. This August, every Democratic Senator (plus the two Independents) demanded that he go. The Bullock lawsuit yielded a ruling finding Pendley’s appointment illegal, and decisions made under his leadership illegal as well. We might well be witnessing the beginning of the end of the alt-right’s last best chance to hijack America’s public lands. Not a moment too soon.

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.