Montana conservationists decry ‘illegal’ appointment of new BLM director

Perry Pendley, co-director, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

Montana conservationists and sportsmen are pushing back against what they see as an illegal move to assign a public land opponent to the top spot in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

A coalition of Montana conservation organizations voiced their strong opposition to this week’s appointment of William Perry Pendley as co-director of the BLM. They called on Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines to oppose his hiring.

The groups include, among others, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Trout Unlimited and Montana Conservation Voters.

In the past, most of these groups have spoken out individually against what they see as a dismantling of federal land agencies and policies that provide public participation in decisions that affect the birthright of all Americans. But recently, the acceleration of questionable changes within the BLM has prompted the groups to join in a united front to protest this most recent addition to the Trump administration.

“The BLM manages some of the most revered places in Montana, and we now have someone in charge of the BLM who would prefer to sell those places off rather than do the job of caring for them on behalf of all Americans,” said Kayje Booker, Montana Wilderness Association policy and advocacy director. “It’s hard to imagine anyone in this position more dangerous than William Perry Pendley.”

Montanans first heard of Pendley during the Blackfoot Nation’s struggle to close down a few decades-old oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine, an area on the Rocky Mountain Front adjacent to the Blackfoot Reservation and Glacier National Park. Pendley was the lead counsel for Solonex, a Louisiana oil company that is suing the U.S. government for the right to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine.

Pendley, a Colorado resident, was also president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a property-rights group that regularly the Department of the Interior on behalf of extractive industry companies.

On July 15, 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 a co-leadership spot with Michael Nedd after the previous acting director, Casey Hammond, stepped down.

Pendley now 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 where conservation groups are opposing a recent draft management plan that emphasizes extractive activities.

Bringing more logging, mining and drilling into BLM lands along the Blackfoot River and across the state could affect those who rely on Montana’s outdoor recreation economy, which generates $7.1 billion annually in consumer spending and has created more than 71,000 jobs.

“Pendley poses a grave threat not just to our public lands and outdoor way of life; he also poses a grave threat to Montana’s economy,” said Whitney Tawney, Montana Conservation Voters deputy director. “Montanans cannot afford to have someone in this position who has so little regard for what makes this state so special.”

Dave Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation executive director, said one of the things that should bother Montanans is the “acting” title of Pendley’s position. When someone is in an “acting” capacity, they have the power to make critical decisions without having gone through the U.S. Senate vetting process required of a permanent director.

“Interior Secretary David Bernhardt knows that Pendley’s record as an anti-public land crusader would never withstand the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation hearing,” Chadwick said. “Installing Pendley as acting BLM director deprives the American people from having a say through our elected Senators.”

In December 2018, after former Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke stepped down due to allegations of his own conflicts of interest, Pendley’s name was raised a few times as a possible replacement.

“He was ruled out exactly for the issues we’re raising,” Chadwick said. “He was deemed politically unacceptable because he would have to go before the Senate and get consent. Then they proceeded to find a way to put him in the highest job they could without actually letting the Senate exercise its Constitutional duty to confirm.”

The Federal Vacancies Reform Act was passed in 1998 to prevent administrations from putting people in power without Senate confirmation. The act limits how long a person can stay in an “acting” role before they are either confirmed or step down.

Chadwick said the Trump administration is getting around the Act by saying Pendley is “exercising the powers of” a co-director, rather than being an “acting” co-director.

Combine Pendley’s promotion with plans to move the BLM to Grand Junction, Colo., and Montanans should worry that the future holds for the agency and public lands.

“In the Bush and Obama administrations, we had things where we disagreed and even if we didn’t win, there was a process in place,” Chadwick said. “But with this administration, everything from energy dominance to sage grouse to land-use planning, not only are they staking out a position that is anti-conservation and public access, they’re doing everything they can to shut off legitimate public participation.”

 

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.