An outspoken public-lands opponent has been in charge of the Bureau of Land Management for the past year without being confirmed, so eight Western senators, including Sen. Jon Tester, are demanding a hearing.
On Tuesday, Tester and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., held a conference call to discuss their letter calling on Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, R-W.V., to schedule a hearing to confirm William Perry Pendley as the director of the BLM.
“While I am strongly opposed to his nomination, I am pushing for the process to move as quickly as possible so William Perry Pendley can be held accountable to the American public for his long career of anti-public lands activism,” Tester said. “William Perry Pendley’s extremism is out of touch with the American people, who value their public lands and want to see them preserved for their kids and grandkids. He has no business running the Bureau of Land Management, and I am hopeful the American people will see why.”
Pendley’s tenure leading the BLM has repeatedly been extended as the result of a leadership-position shell game.
In July 2019, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt hired Pendley as the BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, a position newly created for him. A week later, Bernhardt moved Pendley into the BLM co-leadership spot with Michael Nedd after the previous acting director, Casey Hammond, stepped down.
Since then, Pendley’s deputy director position has been repeatedly renewed without the Trump administration taking any action to officially nominate him. Congressional watchdogs say that’s illegal and Montana’s conservation and sportsmen’s groups have loudly voiced their opposition to each renewal.
The 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act prohibits administrations from putting people in charge of agencies without Senate confirmation. The act limits how long a person can stay in an “acting” role to 210 days before they must either be confirmed or step down.
Possibly to get around the law, Pendley wasn’t designated as an acting director, dubbed instead as a “deputy director exercising the authority of a director,” a role normally assigned only during the changeover from one president to the next.
What concerns people is an unvetted director – who has sued the BLM a number of times – oversees the management of 250 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights throughout the nation. In Montana, the BLM manages approximately 8 million acres of public land, including a region just east of Missoula that just implemented a new 15-year management plan that emphasizes extractive activities.
Since taking over, Pendley has closed the BLM’s Washington, D.C., office and moved the headquarters to Colorado where he lives. The move, supposedly made to put the headquarters closer to the majority of BLM’s land base, resulted in large expenses and a number of staff resignations.
The upheaval could affect some of those who rely on Montana’s outdoor recreation economy, which, in a normal year, generates $7.1 billion in consumer spending and has created more than 71,000 jobs.
On June 26, President Trump finally said he planned to nominate Pendley as director. But since then, the Senate has made no move to do so. Dealing with COVID-19 funding bills has snarled schedules a bit, and Congress took two weeks off in July and is nearing its August break.
Tester said a hearing should be scheduled as soon as possible.
“I’d like it this week. But they have to get the paperwork done. All we’re trying to do is push them. Make it a high priority. Get it done. So that we can get to the bottom of this person’s record and vote appropriately,” Tester said. “I would hope we could get bipartisan opposition. He deserves bipartisan opposition.”
Tester said he hasn’t talked with Sen. Steve Daines about the nomination because Daines has already voiced support for Pendley. Tester said that could change once Daines gets the details about Pendley’s record in a hearing.
Harry Barnes, recent Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe, Land Tawney, executive director of the Missoula-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation president, joined the senators to highlight Pendley’s lack of qualification.
Barnes had to deal with Pendley personally when Pendley represented Solonex, an oil company that insisted on its right to drill in the Badger Two Medicine region, a wild land south of Glacier National Park that is sacred to the Blackfeet Nation.
“It was not a pleasant experience by any stretch of the imagination,” Barnes said. “We fought that battle. We even met with Mr. Pendley and his client and tried to negotiate a settlement that was good for his client and good for the Blackfeet people as well as the Badger Two Medicine. But he just absolutely dug in his heels and refuse to move an inch.”
While he was the Mountain States Legal Foundation executive director, prior to leading the BLM, Pendley publicly scoffed at Native American religious practices and sacred land, especially if it stood in the way of oil development.
Federal land agencies like the BLM are supposed to consult with tribes on projects would affect land covered in treaties. In the past, the government has sometimes not upheld their promise to do so, and Barnes worries the BLM would revert to that under Pendley’s lead.
Also, the BLM oversees money associated with tribal water compacts. Congress has already approved the Blackfeet Nation’s water compact, and Barnes said the Blackfeet intend to self-manage their money if possible. But he said other tribes without a ratified water compact, like the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, could face issues with Pendley’s BLM.
“It could affect all the tribes in the West. It’s going to be another fight for what is justly ours. An ongoing saga,” Barnes said.
Land Tawney told of the many collaborative efforts across the West that came up with compromises to keep the sage grouse off the Endangered Species List. Part of what convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird were the protective provisions in several BLM plans that could now be abandoned under Pendley.
“Now, there’s 150,000 acres of sage grouse habitat that is at risk because of these collaborations being thrown out the window in favor energy dominance,” Tawney said. “It’s absolutely a death knell for the collaboration process that helps us manage our public lands. Why would somebody sit at the table for a decade knowing that somebody is just going to throw it out?”
Sen. Rosen said the BLM manages 67% of the land in Nevada and many in Nevada love their public land because it supports 90,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in state revenue.
“William doesn’t care about that. This is why we need a hearing,” Rosen said. “He is unacceptable for this position. And anyone making someone an acting director indefinitely is bypassing the regular order of the Senate. We want them to come back to the table and do the work.”
Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, which would hear the nomination, and Manchin is the ranking member. The other senators who signed the letter are Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.