Montana conservation groups are describing the Bureau of Land Management’s new acting director as a threat to public lands.
On Monday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order naming William Perry Pendley, a lawyer with a long history of opposition to public lands, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley had recently been named the Bureau’s Deputy Director for Policy and Programs; this order puts him at the top of the agency, but without a Senate confirmation process.
Pendley had long rankled Montana conservation groups for defending oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area, between the Blackfeet Reservation and Glacier National Park. Now, they say that the risk Pendley poses to public lands goes much further.
“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,” Kayje Booker, policy and advocacy director at Montana Wilderness Association, stated in a press release. “It’s hard to imagine anyone in this position more dangerous than William Perry Pendley.”
This week, Interior spokeswoman Molly Block disputed the idea the administration plans to liquidate public land, saying in an email to the Associated Press that, "This administration has been clear that we are not interested in transferring public lands."
In a joint news release, however, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Trout Unlimited, the Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Conservation Voters also voiced their concern.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers president Land Tawney called on U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, to use his position as a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to oppose Pendley’s appointment.
One day earlier, a spokesperson for Sen. Steve Daines said the senator believes Pendley should be recused from the deals related to the Badger-Two Medicine area and had expressed as much to the Department of the Interior.
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Tuesday, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers' communications director Katie McKalip said the senator's office had confirmed it was looking into the request to oppose the appointment. However, the senator did not reply to a request for comment from the Missoulian by early Tuesday evening.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, issued a statement calling Pendley’s BLM leadership “a grave threat to the future of public lands.”
Pendley, a former mid-level Interior appointee in the Reagan administration, for decades has championed ranchers and others in standoffs with the federal government over grazing and other uses of public lands. He has written books accusing federal authorities and environmental advocates of "tyranny" and "waging war on the West." He argued in a 2016 National Review article that the "Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold."
A conservation group called Pendley an "ideological zealot" and pointed to the federal agency's announcement earlier this month that it planned to move the BLM's headquarters from Washington and disperse the headquarters staff among Western states.
Pendley's "ascending to the top of BLM just as it is being reorganized strongly suggests the administration is positioning itself to liquidate our shared public lands," said Phil Hanceford, conservation director for The Wilderness Society conservation advocacy group.
The Wilderness Association's Booker said the issue has not received the attention it deserves, and the association is concerned Pendley is more interested in selling off land than taking care of it.
“Right now we’re asking people to contact the Senators,” Booker said. “If we see that their calls are not answered, then we will consider next steps.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.