Ariz. conservationists sound alarm over Trump pick to head public lands bureau

By: - July 31, 2020 1:08 pm

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Northern Arizona. Photo by Bureau of Land Management | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Bureau of Land Management has supported mining near the Grand Canyon, livestock grazing in federally protected areas, resource extraction at national monuments and generally opposed federal management of Western lands — all positions conservationists in Arizona say would hurt the state’s public lands.

William Perry Pendley’s long record as an attorney and advocate before he joined the BLM as a deputy director last July raises serious concerns, members of Arizona’s conservation community say. He represented miners in an Obama-era lawsuit challenging a federal prohibition on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, wrote in favor of allowing oil and gas extraction on national monuments and has advocated for divesting federal public lands that are popular recreation sites in the state.

“He doesn’t believe in public lands,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “Having a person manage a public resource who doesn’t even believe in it is really pretty outrageous.”

Trump nominated Pendley to lead the BLM on June 30. But Pendley has enjoyed the authority of a director for his entire tenure, as the director’s office has been vacant. In that time, the bureau has proposed allowing livestock grazing at the Sonoran Desert National Monument and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, sites Bahr said aren’t suitable for grazing because it could destroy animals’ natural habitats.

The positions also reflect Pendley’s views in favor of extraction on public lands.

Before joining the administration, Pendley was a frequent contributor to the conservative magazine National Review, where he suggested that the federal government should sell all its public lands and criticized former Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, saying he didn’t go far enough in opening national monuments for economic and recreational uses. He has also called human-induced climate change “fiction.”

Those views haven’t always translated into policy during Pendley’s time as acting director. The bureau has acquired 25,000 acres over the past year, BLM spokesman Derrick Henry wrote in a statement.  

“Mr. Pendley brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Department and is committed to carrying out the Administration’s priorities and achieving the BLM’s multiple-use mission for the betterment of the American people,” Henry wrote. “He also has relentlessly championed BLM’s diverse portfolio of land uses, whether recreational, commercial or conservation, and supported the dedicated career BLM professionals who work diligently to accomplish the agency’s work across the nation.”  

Still, many conservationists consider his long-expressed views antithetical to BLM’s mission and undermine the relationship between the bureau and those who use its land, said Justin Nelson, chair of the board for the Arizona chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Nelson said his group enjoys a strong working relationship with the agency but worries that it would deteriorate under a BLM director like Pendley, who he said doesn’t share the group’s appreciation for public lands.

The BLM manages about 12 million acres in Arizona — or nearly a fifth of the state — more than it does in 42 other states. Recreational activities, such as hunting, fishing, camping and hiking, account for most of BLM land use in the state. Recreation activity on BLM land supports nearly 1,200 jobs in the state, according to a 2018 Pew Charitable Trust study; it pegged the nationwide economic impact of BLM recreation at $3 billion.

Throughout much of the West, opposition to Pendley centers on his advocacy for opening public lands to oil and gas exploration. That is less of a concern in Arizona, which has relatively few energy deposits. But some still worry that an anti-conservation attitude atop the bureau would lead to lax protection of areas that need it.

Part of BLM’s mission is to adapt to changing circumstances and revise conservation plans, said Elaine Zielinski, who was BLM’s Arizona state director from 2002 to 2009. Career, non-political officials are generally heavily involved in starting conversations about those plans, but Zielinski said they are unlikely to initiate that process if they believe bureau leadership isn’t dedicated to it.

“I think managers are very cautious about identifying any other land for conservation,” she said. “It’s a real chilling effect. … You have to pick your battles, so I think there is definitely a hesitancy to go forward with some environmental designations.”

As acting director, Pendley has not pursued the policies his critics most fear. He hasn’t overseen a wide-scale divestment of public lands or downgraded any national monuments. National laws like the National Environmental Protection Act and other safeguards within the federal bureaucracy limit the power of a single appointee to enact far-reaching changes, said George Ruyle, a professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment who focuses on livestock ranging.

And with an election coming up, Pendley’s time in government could be limited, Ruyle said.

“I don’t see much changing in Arizona, really,” he said. “This is a political appointee. He’s not going to be with us forever.”

Next steps

Pendley’s nomination will come under review in an upcoming hearing in the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on which Arizona’s Republican senator, Martha McSally, sits. McSally has not said how she will vote on the nomination, and representatives for her office did not return messages seeking comment.

The committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on the nomination. The Democrats who oppose him want a confirmation hearing as soon as possible to highlight a record they say is out of step with the bureau’s mission.

Democrats hold a minority of seats on the committee and in the Senate chamber and face an uphill battle in their effort to sink the nomination.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, declined to comment, saying she does not preview votes.

U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat, said in a written statement that the nomination shows the Trump administration’s disregard for public lands.

“By officially nominating Pendley, a man who has long argued for selling off all public lands, to head the [BLM], President Trump has continued his pattern of appointing officials that are uniquely unsuited for the agencies they lead,” Gallego said in a written statement. “Under Acting Director Pendley, the BLM has pursued an agenda that stifles public input, endangers our environment, disregards Indigenous peoples and prioritizes extractive industries’ access to America’s special places.”

In addition to his views on public lands, Pendley’s social policy positions have also received a new round of scrutiny. He criticized the Obama administration’s antiterrorism strategy for focusing on homegrown right-wing extremists, whom Pendley said were “espousing strong views regarding the mischief afoot in Washington,” rather than on “Islamic radicals.” He also blamed a number of national problems on “illegal immigrants” and wrote that the Black Lives Matter movement is “based on a lie.” Much of Pendley’s earlier writing was first reported by CNN.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy and helps direct national coverage as deputy Washington bureau chief for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.