The Bureau of Land Management is a division of the Department of the Interior that oversees an acreage roughly equivalent to just over 10 percent of the United States, most of it in the West. Outdoorspeople probably know the BLM best as the agency that lets you camp for free on its land. Wannabe cowboy William Perry Pendley ran the agency with the goal of destroying it, until a judge ruled last Friday that he’d been illegally fulfilling the role.
In case his fraying muskrat pelt and unpleasantly toasted vibe weren’t clear enough signifiers, Pendley has made a career as a hatchet man in the quest for extractive privatization of American public lands. That struggle continues, but because of last week’s federal court ruling, it will continue without Pendley on the front lines.
Director-level positions within the Interior are subject to congressional approval, like cabinet positions, but even though Pendley ran the agency from July 2019 until this month, he was never confirmed and wasn’t formally nominated by Trump until this June. Only weeks after nominating Pendley, Trump withdrew the nomination as several GOP senators in western states grumbled that it would be politically poisonous to have to vote to confirm such an extremist. He held the job for 14 months because Interior Secretary David Bernhardt appointed him on an interim basis and kept “redelegating” him every three months to keep him atop the org chart without having to go through the proper channels. Pendley himself even signed several orders extending his own tenure.
If this sounds illegal, that’s because it is. Democratic Montana Governor Steve Bullock filed a federal suit in May arguing that Pendley’s position was unlawful, and a federal judge ruled in his favor last Friday. The Trump administration will appeal on the grounds that Pendley never actually served in the role in which he served, though it seems futile. The ruling could roll back some of the more disastrous policies of Pendley’s brief tenure, including plans to open up drilling in critical polar bear den habitats in the Arctic. He’s a flagrant clown, but he’s also a useful prism through which to view the Trump administration’s war on the country’s public lands.
Pendley’s brief, remarkable stint in the Trump administration was preceded by a brief, unremarkable stint in Ronald Reagan’s administration under then–Interior Secretary James Watt, who was appointed in part as a response to the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement to de-federalize public land. Watt, better known for banning the Beach Boys and forcibly resigning for mocking affirmative action, founded the Mountain States Legal Foundation just before he was appointed by Reagan, and Pendley took it over in 1989 and ran it as president for 30 years. You will not be surprised to learn that the MSLF was initially funded by the Coors family and subsequently raked in money from a Koch-family dark money group and ExxonMobil.
The MSLF’s mission, as well as Pendley’s, can be deduced from who funds them: They seek to open up now-protected swaths of land to oil, gas, timber, and mining companies. Pendley has explicitly argued for the full privatization of federally owned land (he wrote a book about their “tyranny” in 1995), and his perch atop the BLM gave him a useful angle of attack. One of Pendley’s more controversial moves was moving the BLM office into the same building as Chevron’s corporate headquarters.
Not only does the BLM oversee most of the area of both Nevada and Utah, but the land it manages also contains 30 percent of the nation’s mineral deposits. The greatest tragedy of the Trump administration’s crusade to privatize federal lands is the looming destruction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, sacred land to Native American tribes in the region and beloved recreational sites for climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Approximately one million acres have been opened up for oil drilling and uranium mining, though low oil prices have kept companies away for the moment. Trump rolled out the plan in late 2017 and Pendley’s office formally approved it this February.
Pendley’s role as a deregulation zealot would make him an asset for any Republican president, but it is his particular brand of kookiness (tirelessly chronicled by Outside magazine and CNN’s KFile) that makes him a man for this moment. He claimed last year that wild horses and burros represented the biggest environmental threat to public lands; he denied the existence of the hole in the ozone layer; he’s yawped about the “fiction of man-made climate change” for decades and is himself a “global cooling” guy; his position on Native American tribes is essentially that they either don’t or shouldn’t exist, don’t deserve the proceeds from mineral sales, and should have their holy sites targeted for destruction; he has voiced support for militia idiot Cliven Bundy; he’s compared immigrants to cancer; and finally, he hates the other BLM.
The extended Trump administrative universe has been defined by a mass empowering of villains, kooks, and absurdly on-the-nose postings: charter school zealot Betsy DeVos leading the Department of Education, Iowa football obsessive Matt Whitaker serving as Attorney General for a few months, and ludicrously corrupt scumbag Scott Pruitt running the Environmental Protection Agency. It has also been defined by interim postings like Pendley’s that allow such weirdos to sail into power without the Senate approval required for permanent positions. Several major agencies have operated on the acting director model for years, including the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. Federal courts have often ruled individual appointments unlawful, but Trump has leaned heavily on this model since it shields him and GOP senators from possible political blowback, and makes for more pliant department heads. Per Outside, “133 of the over 750 roles” needing Senate confirmation are filled by theoretically temporary directors.
In Pendley’s case, last Friday’s decision means that several of the more contentious moves made under him could be reversed, including the relocation of the office and the drilling project in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is the most serious pushback against a dismantling that has included southern Utah opened up for mining, bans on hunting baby wolves and bears reversed, and the country’s largest national forest put at risk of decimation. Most of the worst plans have been scuttled amid outcry, since America’s network of public lands is one of the few functioning and publicly popular programs in the country, although the tragedy is that decades and centuries of care and maintenance can be undone permanently by a year of extraction. Pendley’s extremism has been stymied for now, but the effort to turn a quick buck on public lands will continue as long as Donald Trump holds office.