Backdoor Appointment At Interior Adds To Fears Of A Public Land Sell-off

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The Trump administration last week tapped William Perry Pendley, a conservative lawyer who has spent decades campaigning against federal land protection, to oversee 245 million acres of public land — more than 10% of the entire U.S. landmass. 

It’s an appointment that many, including current and former Bureau of Land Management officials, view as part of a broader effort aimed at pawning off America’s natural heritage. 

“This is Sagebrush Rebellion 2020,” one current BLM employee in the West told HuffPost, adding that it is “hard to imagine” Pendley’s appointment isn’t a move toward eventually selling off federal lands or transferring control to the states. 

“All the news about the BLM is really depressing and fits with this administration that is trying to destroy everything in the name of profits as we face serious economic and environmental catastrophe,” the BLM employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, told HuffPost in a text message. “I try not to think about it too much.”

Pendley is the former longtime president of Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for selling off millions of federal acres in the West. He first served as an Interior Department appointee during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Pendley was appointed in mid-July to a senior policy position at the federal Bureau of Land Management. Then last week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, quietly signed an order elevating him to the role of acting director, putting a man who detests federal land policy at the helm of a bureau that manages more than one-third of all federal land and 700 million subsurface mineral acres ― all without Pendley having to go through a Senate confirmation process. 

The Wyoming native has extreme anti-government views. He despises the Endangered Species Act, once writing the bedrock conservation law seeks “to kill or prevent anybody from making a living on federal land.” He has sued the federal government numerous times in the last three decades, including over ESA listings and national monument designations. He’s called the science of climate change “junk science” and blasted the Obama administration for waging a perceived “war on coal.”

But it’s Pendley’s view of the federal estate that has conservationists most alarmed. He believes public lands shouldn’t exist at all. 

“Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” he wrote in a January 2016 op-ed published by The National Review. Pendley wrote several books about land issues in the West, including one titled “Sagebrush Rebel,” a reference to the Sagebrush Rebellion movement of the 1970s and ’80s that sought to free lands from federal control. Until recently, he was posting under the Twitter handle @Sagebrush_Rebel. 

Bringing Pendley aboard might seem like a puzzling move for an administration that has repeatedly vowed not to dispose of federal acres. But for those paying close attention, there’s been a rising interest in offloading national treasures since President Donald Trump took office.

On March 4, 2017, the morning after being sworn in as the 52nd secretary of the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke addressed agency employees at the department’s headquarters in Washington. Exactly one minute into the speech, he delivered a clear promise: “You can hear it from my lips: We will not sell or transfer public land. It won’t happen.” 

The comment drew a lengthy round of applause. Zinke had bucked his own party on the issue, resigning as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2016 over its support for transferring federal lands. It’s a big reason that many hunting, fishing and conservation groups initially backed him for the position

As the months ticked by, however, the Trump administration began flirting with the pro-land-transfer movement. Zinke and other Cabinet officials sidled up to groups at the front of the effort to get public lands out of the federal government’s hands. Zinke tapped several opponents of federal land policy for high-ranking department positions, including Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen and Ryan Nichols, formerly of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

And Trump’s initial $200 billion infrastructure plan, unveiled by the White House in February 2018, called explicitly for selling off federal assets that “would be better managed by state, local, or private entities.” The George Washington Parkway and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were among the federal properties identified for possible sale.

The Bureau of Land Management proposed selling off public lands at least three times under Zinke’s watch, most notably 1,600 acres that Trump carved out of Grand Staircase-Escalante monument. That particular proposal, buried in a draft resource management plan released last August and first reported by HuffPost, called for selling or transferring 16 federal parcels that had been protected as part of the Utah monument until Trump’s sweeping rollback in December 2017. Interior quickly scrapped the plan amid public backlash, saying it was “inconsistent” with agency policy. 

In November 2018, Interior hosted at its D.C. headquarters members of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch brothers-backed nonprofit pushing for the federal government to hand over control of its lands to states. At the closed-door event, Zinke apparently stood his ground on sale and transfer, but voiced support for entering into agreements with states to give them a greater say in how public lands are managed, according to posts by South Carolina state Rep. Alan Clemmons (R), the secretary of ALEC’s board of directors.

“So much progress is coming from the work and leadership of Secretary Zinke,” Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R), the former head of the Free the Lands project, wrote in a Facebook post, along with photos of him posing with Zinke and other agency officials.

Despite leading the largest reduction of protected national monuments in American history and opening millions of acres of public land to drilling and mining, Zinke continued to portray himself and his boss as the ultimate defenders of public lands. He resigned in January amid numerous ethics scandals, leaving some to wonder if the former Montana congressman was all that stood between the administration and large-scale land transfers. 

The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s multiple requests for comment. But in a statement to The Washington Post, an agency spokesman said that “the administration adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands.”

Along with Pendley’s swift rise to the top of the federal land bureau, the Interior Department last month announced plans to relocate the majority of BLM staff at the agency’s Washington headquarters to Western states. The administration has said the decision to shuffle employees at BLM and other agencies around is about putting federal officials closer to the people they serve and resources they manage ― a talking point that was clearly lost on acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who over the weekend boasted that relocations are a “wonderful way” to get rid of civil servants.

In the case of BLM, two former agency directors ― Robert V. Abbey and Patrick Shea ― told Bloomberg they expect there’s a second, more insidious goal: to paralyze the agency in a way that could ultimately justify land transfers. 

Kate Kelly, public lands director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a former Interior Department official in the Obama administration, agrees. 

“They are attempting to Balkanize the agency and scatter and isolate its leadership across the West,” she told HuffPost. “The long-term impact of that will be to weaken the agency such that it’s hard to have cohesive positions and even provide the services that are expected of the federal government to manage public lands. If the agency is weakened enough, it could give credence to the more extreme view that the federal government shouldn’t be managing these public lands.” 

One place this effort could materialize is within BLM draft resource management plans, which often receive little public attention but shape how large swaths of federal land are used for years to come.  

“If they strip away a conservation identity and suggest that these lands would be better managed by states or industry, that is hard to pull back,” Kelly said. 

In its draft plan last year for former Grand Staircase-Escalante lands, BLM did not specify why it initially identified the 16 parcels for possible sale. But emails released as part of a request for public records detailed the agency’s decision to include a 120-acre piece of land adjacent to property owned by then-Utah state Rep. Mike Noel (R), a fierce Trump ally and opponent of the Clinton-era monument. That particular parcel was selected because it is “isolated” and “best fit the criteria for a more development-oriented approach,” a BLM official wrote in an internal email.

A recent Pew Charitable Trusts’ analysis of six Trump administration draft land-use plans covering more than 20 million acres in five states found the agency is moving to strip away longstanding protections and open new areas for energy and mineral development. 

Cheese Box Butte, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.



Cheese Box Butte, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Pendley’s appointment is the latest case of what critics see as Trump putting a fox in charge of guarding the henhouse or, as Dan Hartinger, national monument campaign director at The Wilderness Society, described it, “akin to assigning Wile E. Coyote sole custody of the Road Runner.” 

The Mountain States Legal Foundation, of which Pendley was president for nearly three decades, was initially run by James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s interior chief and a man widely considered among the most anti-environment Cabinet appointees in U.S. history. Pendley joined Watt’s Interior Department in 1981 as deputy assistant secretary of the Minerals Management Service. 

His first stint in public service would be largely defined by his role as an architect of a massive 1982 coal lease that brought in $100 million less than it was worth, as The Washington Post reported at the time, and a subsequent 1984 report that detailed a $494 dinner that two coal executives treated Pendley and a second interior official to the same day that they decided what bidding format would be used in the lease sale. The Post described Pendley and his colleague, David Russell, as “Watt’s ideological twins.”

Pendley is now back in charge of that same federal coal-leasing program. He oversees protected sites like Grand Staircase-Escalante, one of many monument designations he previously sued over, as well as Bears Ears National Monument, a Utah site that is considered sacred to many tribes and is home to thousands of Native American archeological and cultural sites. And unless he is forced to recuse himself, Pendley will be involved in the government’s decades-long legal dispute over oil and gas leases in Montana’s 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine, an area considered sacred to the Blackfeet Nation. As president of Mountain States Legal Foundation, he represented oil company Solonex in its push to drill in Badger-Two Medicine

Pendley has a history of ridiculing Native Americans over their religious beliefs regarding sacred lands, as freelance reporter Jimmy Tobias highlighted in a series of posts to Twitter. 

At a Colorado county Republican breakfast in 2009, Pendley railed against “American Indian religious practitioners and their increasing insistence that federal land and private property be off limits to use because it’s ‘holy’ to them.”

“The Indians have been doing this for a number of years,” he added.

Even before Pendley’s return to government last month, it was clear the Interior Department and BLM would continue to prioritize development over conservation and ― at least when the administration agrees ― states’ rights over federal rules.

In May, BLM scrubbed its conservation-focused mission statement from agency news releases, which now exclusively highlights the economic value of public lands. And on July 17, two days after Pendley joined the bureau, Bernhardt was among several Trump administration officials to speak at a conference that the Heritage Foundation hosted called “Restoring Federalism: Giving Power Back to the States.” At the event, Ivory and other anti-federal-land advocates condemned the so-called “administrative state,” applauded the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda and grumbled about federal land ownership.

“What kind of an effort is there, or is there one, amongst Western states to try to convince the federal government to, frankly, give these lands over to the state governments?” moderator Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at Heritage, asked the opening panel of Republican state and local leaders. 

Ivory fidgeted in his seat waiting for his opportunity to answer, then launched into a nearly 4-minute rant that included a quote from Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland (on the court until 1938) about how taking away a person’s property ultimately leaves them a slave. 

“We’ve taken on the effort of looking at having greater local care and management, and we’ve run into some pretty serious opposition from some of the political forces out there,” Ivory said. 

When Bernhardt and other members of Trump’s Cabinet took the stage, no one asked if the administration would change its policy or reconsider its opposition to the sale and transfer of land. It was as if they understood that making such a public declaration could be political suicide ahead of the 2020 election. A 2017 poll by the Center for American Progress found that 64% of Trump voters oppose privatizing or selling off public lands. A survey by Colorado College in 2016 found that 60% of Western voters are against selling off significant federal land holdings. 

It remains to be seen how Pendley shapes BLM policy. But if and when the Trump administration flips and embraces wholesale transfer of the lands owned by all Americans, as the Republican Party platform calls for, the writing will have long been on the wall.

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