When Interior Secretary David Bernhardt assigned William Pendley as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management on July 29, conservation groups ranging from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers to the Montana Wildlife Federation joined together to stand against the conservative lawyer.
The conservation groups oppose Pendley’s appointment because of his record as an advocate for selling federally owned public lands and for the use of public land exclusively for traditional energy development like oil and gas.
Pendley served as Interior deputy assistant secretary for energy and minerals during the Reagan administration, his only experience working for the federal government. From 1989 until 2018 he was the president of the Mountain State Legal Foundation, a conservative law group.
Kayje Booker is the policy and advocacy director for the Montana Wilderness Association, one of the organizations opposed to Pendley.
"There’s eight million acres of BLM land in Montana, some spectacular places," Booker says. "We now have someone in charge of that agency who actually believes that those lands should be sold off. We think every Montanan and really every American should be concerned about this appointment."
The groups want Montanans to contact Senator Jon Tester and Senator Steve Daines and ask them to call for the removal of Pendley as head of the BLM. The groups have focused on Senator Daines because he’s a member of the Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, which has oversight over the Department of Interior and the BLM.
A spokesperson for Senator Steve Daines said, “The Senator will want assurances that whoever is formally nominated as the Director of the BLM understands and appreciates Western issues.”
Senator Daines’ comment brings into focus another controversial aspect of Pendley’s rise to the head of the BLM: The Trump administration never formally nominated him, meaning he didn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate. Instead, Interior Secretary David Bernhard placed him in his current position.
Senator Tester said during a recent call with rural reporters, “He’s not confirmed yet, but with this administration, it doesn’t seem like anybody needs to be confirmed.”
E&E News reported Pendley’s appointment as a continued trend of changing leadership at the BLM under the Trump administration. The environment and energy publication quoted Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM retirees' organization as saying, “Neither the public, the agency, nor the employees are served by a continuation of musical chair directors.”
The conservation groups say another trend illustrated by this appointment is what Dave Chadwick, the Executive Director of the Montana Wildlife Federation called "a real systematic effort to cut out the public and to make public land management a more opaque process."
Chadwick used the example of the Lewistown Resource Management Plan. He said in 2016 the BLM listened to stakeholders to develop a plan, which was shelved. A few months ago a new draft came out which opened up 95 percent of the area to oil and gas development and got rid of environmental protections.
"Basically they rewrote this Lewistown Resource Management Plan in Washington, D.C. and threw out all of the local engagement and if that's a sign of what’s to come, then we’re going to have a really challenging time ahead of us," Chadwick said.
Not everyone is convinced Pendley will have a negative effect on Montana. Representative Greg Gianforte said through a spokesperson that he’s “optimistic about working with Mr. Pendley to promote Montana’s interests.”
Alan Olsen, the executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, says he doesn’t think Pendley’s appointment will lead to the sale of public lands.
"Mr. Pendley has made those comments in the past but I don’t really think that it’s a realistic expectation that that would happen," Olsen said. "You know, matter of fact, Senator Steve Daines and Representative Gianforte have both opposed that as well."