Conservative lawyer William Perry Pendley has argued that the federal government should sell its public lands. As of Monday, he’s in charge of overseeing a huge chunk of them.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order on Monday naming Pendley as the acting head of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM oversees more land than any other federal agency—nearly 240 million acres, over three times as much as the National Parks Service, encompassing much of the western U.S. Unlike National Parks, BLM-managed land is governed by “multiple-use” principles, which allow for some activities like logging and grazing to occur.
Because BLM land is meant to be "public"—that is, owned and controlled by the federal government for use by the American public—who actually gets to use the land, whether it be for recreation or commercial interests, has long been a source of huge tensions in the West. Pendley, who previously served as a Reagan-era Interior deputy assistant secretary, has written numerous articles that suggest he has little regard for the environment or the federal government's management of public lands.
In a 2016 op-ed for the National Review, Pendley made the argument that “the Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold.”
In 2017, Pendley wrote another National Review piece in favor of Trump’s plan to shrink various national monuments, lamenting how monuments can get in the way of things like coal mining and deriding the Antiquities Act, the first US law protecting natural resources.
“The Antiquities Act long ago outlived its usefulness even while it remains capable of massive and malevolent misapplication,” Pendley wrote.
It goes on. For the right-leaning Washington Examiner in 2016, Pendley called former President Obama’s policies to restrict drilling on federal land “lawless placating of environmental extremists.” Also for the Washington Examiner, in 2018, he described environmental groups as "radical" and the judges who agree with them as having "abused" the law.
“The BLM has always had a complex mission. It oversees mining, livestock grazing, recreation, and wilderness protection,” said Bobby McEnaney, who works on developing clean energy on public lands for the environmental non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’ve never had someone who said the mission isn’t about protecting public lands.”
In 2013, Pendley authored a book titled Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan's Battle With Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today, which lauds the former president's pro-business environmental policies. The title is a reference to a movement, the Sagebrush Rebellion, that sought to remove some public lands from federal control and which Reagan supported.
For example, Trump picked Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt recently resigned amid ethics scandals, to be replaced by coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. Before oil lobbyist Bernhardt became the Interior Secretary, the position was held by Ryan Zinke, who advocated for more offshore drilling and oversaw Trump’s reduction in the size of some national monuments.
“It’s the latest in this administration’s almost perverse behavior of putting people automatically disqualified from serving in these agencies into leadership roles,” McEnaney said.
Since mid-July, Pendley has been the BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs. He spent nearly 30 years as the president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to individual liberty and property rights.
Pendley's long history of undermining the federal government's claim to public lands is worrying, McEnaney said. However, a Department of the Interior spokesperson told VICE in an emailed statement that the department is opposed to the sale or transfer of lands. "The Department adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands," the spokesperson wrote. "The BLM is mandated by Congress to manage public lands under multiple use and sustained yield principles. When BLM develops resource management plans, which guide how the BLM will manage public land over a period of time, careful consideration is given to a range of resource uses and values—including energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvest, while protecting scientific, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archaeological values. BLM always prepares these plans through a collaborative effort where individuals, communities, and governments work together to address common needs and goals within a planning area."
UPDATE: This article was updated with comment from a BLM spokesperson.