Daines leans toward Pendley nomination; Montana conservation community alarmed

Sen. Steve Daines, right, raised concern among Montana conservationists when he answered “yes” to a media question asking if he supported the nomination of William Perry Pendley to direct the BLM. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Montana conservationists and sportsmen and women expressed disappointment Friday after learning that Montana’s junior senator said he would support a public lands opponent for director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

On Friday morning, the E&E News posted a story that quoted Sen. Steve Daines as saying “Yes” to a question of whether he would support the nomination of William Perry Pendley to direct the BLM. Within hours, several Montana conservation groups said they disapproved of Daines signaling approval before confirmation hearings have started.

“It’s hard to think of a worse choice for BLM director than William Perry Pendley. That’s why it’s so appalling that Sen. Daines would support him,” said Kayje Booker, Montana Wilderness Association policy director in a statement. “Sen. Daines has to realize at some point that his rhetoric against selling off public lands means nothing when he makes these kinds of decisions.”

On Twitter, Montana Conservation Voters tweeted “Montanans deserve more than a one-word answer about Senator (Daines) support for William Perry Pendley because support for Pendley is support for privatizing Montana’s public lands.”

On Nov. 4, Daines sent a letter to President Donald Trump encouraging him to fill leadership positions in the Department of the Interior that have long been empty, specifically the directors of the BLM and National Park Service and the Special Trustee for American Indians.

In the letter, Daines praised Trump’s other nominations for key administration roles, but he didn’t suggest specific individuals to fill the leadership positions.

“Nominating individuals with a track record of not only responsibly utilizing our public assets on these lands, but also working to protect and enhance the vast potential these lands bring to the American people is critically important,” the letter said.

Daines’ support of Pendley appears to counter that statement, said Dave Chadwick, speaking for the Montana Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation. He pointed out that Daines said two months ago that he would interview Pendley before he made a decision.

“Now, he’s indicating that he has made a decision,” Chadwick said. “I’ll give him slack if he wants to say ‘I didn’t hear the question’ or if he can say, ‘No, this guy needs to be nominated and vetted.’ But based on what we know right now, that’s a pretty clear yes, he supports him.”

The E&E News story said the reporter questioned Daines while he was hurrying to a vote. The Missoula Current asked Daines’ staff to confirm that Daines understood the question and still supports Pendley.

Daines spokeswoman Julia Doyle said in an email that Daines “will vet and discuss important issues with Mr. Pendley to confirm they understand western issues, including keeping public lands in public hands.”

“With that said, with Pendley’s assurances he understands and supports Trump’s and Bernhardt’s position on federal lands, if he would be formally nominated, the senator would most likely support his nomination,” Doyle said.

Many of the same conservation groups reacting to Friday’s news spoke as one in July to oppose Pendley’s appointment as acting co-director of the BLM, and called on Montana’s senators to oppose Pendley’s hiring.

They don’t trust Pendley, because like many of Trump’s appointees, he supports the opposite of what the agency was created for. He has a history of favoring oil and mining interests, from being the attorney for the Louisiana oil company wanting to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine area near the Blackfeet Reservation, to leading the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has regularly sued the BLM and the Department of the Interior on behalf of extractive industries.

Jayson O’Neill of the Whitefish-based Western Values Project said it was disingenuous of Daines to endorse Pendley without Pendley being willing to respond to questions about his past.

Montana’s senior senator, Sen. Jon Tester, sent a letter in August asking Pendley to explain his repeated calls for the sell-off of public land and to recuse himself from any dealings on the Badger-Two Medicine oil lease. The letter remains unanswered.

“It’s a glimpse into Sen. Daines’ views on America’s public lands,” O’Neill said. “If he aligns with Pendley without clarification and without the proper confirmation hearing in front of the committee that he sits on, Sen. Daines has shot his shot. He’s aligned himself with an anti-public lands zealot who by all accounts is too conflicted for any position in the Bureau of Land Management.”

In September, Pendley submitted a 17-page list of people, companies and advocacy groups that he has to avoid working with due to conflict of interest. The recusal list contains companies from several industries that the BLM must regulate in order to balance natural resource extraction with conservation.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.