Energy & Environment

Latest appointee overseeing federal public lands once advocated to sell them

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The new head of the Interior Department’s public lands agency once championed selling off federally-owned plots.

William Perry Pendley, a conservative lawyer from Wyoming, on Monday became the top official leading the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management–the agency that oversees 12 percent of all U.S. land.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt quietly signed a secretarial order Monday that effectively made Pendley acting director of BLM. 

The staffing shake up came after Pendley was unceremoniously moved to the post of Deputy Director of BLM Policy and Programs last week, among the agency’s highest positions.

News of the move was largely determined through a change to BLM’s organization chart posted to its website. Interior has not returned calls for comment.

Bernhardt’s secretarial order Monday called for a “temporary redelegation of authority for certain vacant non-career senate-confirmed positions.” 

The positions listed, including Pendley’s, would become “acting by operation of law.”

Pendley first joined the Interior Department last week. Previously, he was the president of Wyoming based Mountain States Legal Foundation, a group that in part advocated for the selling off millions of acres of federal lands out West.

The company’s website hails its work as “a non-profit, public interest law firm, focused on defending the constitution, protecting property rights, and advancing economic liberty.”

Pendley’s name was among those flagged last year as potential replacements to former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who left the agency in January. Multiple former Interior heads have come from the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Pendley is the latest in a long line of acting directors at BLM. Previously Casey Hammond, the Interior Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, served in the post. Before that, Michael Need, deputy director of operations, served in the role for seven months in 2017.

Pendley’s appointment comes as Interior and BLM are facing heavy scrutiny for their management of public lands and their employees.

The BLM manages 245 million acres of public lands. Last week Interior sparked condemnation for submitting plans for Utah’s Bears Ears national monument that would open remaining lands for development after drastically shrinking the protection area in 2017.

The BLM in mid July also submitted plans to relocate the majority of its agency staff outside of Washington, D.C., a move critics say will weaken the voices of career employees. 

Conservation groups largely derided Pendley’s post.

“William Perry Pendley is an ideological zealot whose views are deeply out of touch with the American mainstream,” said Phil Hanceford, conservation director for The Wilderness Society.  

“His 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.”

Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said the move implied Interior was looking to sell off public land, despite previous promises by the Trump administration that it was not looking to do so.

“Pendley is an outspoken advocate for the transfer of public lands to the state. Anything they’ve ever said about not selling off public lands has just been a political smokescreen to distract from their real intentions: handing over public lands to their special interest allies,” he said.

Tags BLM David Bernhardt Interior public lands Ryan Zinke

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