Pendley nomination may be scrapped, but he’s still in charge at BLM

By: - August 20, 2020 2:10 pm
BLM Colorado HQ

This office building in Grand Junction, CO houses the new headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management. Existing tenants in the building include Chevron and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. (Photo: BLM)

President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Bureau of Land Management will continue leading the agency even after his nomination is withdrawn, leading the diverse conservation groups that opposed him to call for his removal from office.

The Trump administration said last weekend it would pull the nomination of William Perry Pendley when the Senate returns from recess, following intense criticism from advocacy groups ranging from the typically Democrat-aligned Sierra Club to more bipartisan organizations. Pendley aggressively opposed government management of public lands before joining the BLM as deputy director for programs and policy last year.

Although the admission by the White House that Pendley wouldn’t win Senate confirmation could be seen as a win for conservation groups and Democratic senators, it also robs them of the opportunity to spotlight a record they say is incompatible with the mission of the agency he was tapped to lead.

Pendley also remains the top BLM official, which his opponents say is unacceptable.

“At first, it felt like a victory,” said Land Tawney, the president and CEO of the nonpartisan Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “It wasn’t a victory. It’s just a sleight of hand and business as usual. And people are watching and they’re not happy about it.”

In his current role, Pendley continues to head the BLM, U.S. Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson confirmed to States Newsroom in an email.

“The President makes staffing decisions,” he wrote. “Mr. Pendley continues to lead the Bureau of Land Management as Deputy Director for Programs and Policy.” BLM is an agency of the Interior Department.

Pendley can act with the authority of the BLM director’s office until a director is confirmed, according to an order that Pendley and Casey Hammond, an Interior official who oversees public lands issues, signed in May, before Pendley was tapped by the president.

The administration says that the order does not officially make Pendley the agency’s acting director and therefore does not conflict with the Vacancy Reform Act that limits acting officials’ legal tenure to less than nine months. Pendley took office as deputy in July 2019 and was nominated by Trump on June 30 to lead the BLM.

Pendley’s opponents say the withdrawal is an acknowledgement that he is unfit to run the agency and that he wouldn’t receive enough support even from the Republican-controlled Senate.

“The administration is going to withdraw his nomination because he is unfit and unconfirmable,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation. “So why are they letting him run the agency? It’s not acceptable.”

Keeping him in his office “is pretty blatantly an end-run around the Constitution” and the Senate’s advise-and-consent responsibility, said Mike Quigley, the Arizona state director of the Wilderness Society, a conservation group.

Pendley’s continued leadership at BLM even though he’s no longer a nominee could indicate the White House made the move to protect three vulnerable Republican senators from Western states—Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana—from a tough vote.

But the withdrawal may not actually provide an escape. Pendley’s nomination spurred conservation groups to urge their members from both political parties to ask their senators to vote against him. The groups say their activism won’t subside until he’s out of office.

Tawney said his group would push McSally, Gardner and Daines, who were key to getting Trump to endorse a public lands funding bill earlier this summer, to ask for Pendley’s removal.

The withdrawal “doesn’t take away this angst, it increases this angst,” Tawney said. “We’re urging them to ask for his removal.”

Stone-Manning, who formerly worked for Daines’s opponent, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, said the withdrawal shouldn’t remove political pressure.

“The same senators who were being asked to choose between following the president and following their constituents should answer whether it is acceptable that he is still in an acting role,” she said. “The public is mad about it. We had tens of thousands of people write their senators saying, ‘Hey, this guy shouldn’t be confirmed,’ from NWF membership. Those people are still watching. And they vote.”

Representatives for McSally, Daines and Gardner did not return messages seeking comment.

Colorado’s senior senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, called for Pendley’s removal.

“William Perry Pendley should have never been chosen to lead the Bureau of Land Management,” Bennet said through a spokesperson’s email. “His policies do not reflect Colorado’s values. Someone who has spent their entire career opposed to the very idea of public lands is unfit to lead a land management agency. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt should terminate Pendley’s authority as acting director of BLM, and the administration should nominate someone who is qualified to lead the agency.”

Before joining the administration, Pendley ran the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for reducing federal control of Western lands in favor of private property rights. Pendley was also 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.”

As an attorney, he represented uranium miners seeking access to lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon and other energy interests looking for access to federal public lands.

Pendley has defended his record, saying that his views don’t entirely dictate policy because he takes his direction from the White House. During his tenure at the BLM, the agency has added 25,000 acres, a spokesperson said last month.

Still, conservationists say he has continued to prioritize the oil and gas industry at the expense of the BLM’s multi-use mission. For example, he approved a 20-year resource management plan in Montana that opened 95% of the area’s acreage for oil and gas exploration, Stone-Manning said.

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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.