Earlier this month, the entire Senate Democratic Caucus ― 45 Democrats and the chamber’s two independents ― sent a letter to the White House signaling they would vote against confirming William Perry Pendley, an anti-public lands extremist, to serve as permanent director of the Bureau of Land Management. The lawmakers called on President Donald Trump to nominate someone else for the job of overseeing 245 million acres of public land and the nation’s vast subsurface mineral resources.
The White House announced days later, on Aug. 15, that Trump will withdraw Pendley’s nomination. But aside from getting vulnerable Senate allies out of having to vote up or down on the toxic nominee, the withdrawal is largely an empty gesture. That’s because Pendley will continue to maintain the director’s authority thanks to an order that he crafted and signed in May to keep himself at the helm of the bureau indefinitely.
The Senate Democratic Caucus is far from satisfied. Late last week, after news of Pendley’s self-serving succession order broke, all 47 members signed onto a second letter urging Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to remove Pendley from the bureau’s leadership role, again citing his extreme anti-environmental views.
“We have grave concerns, however, with reports that Mr. Pendley will continue to lead the bureau through his current position as deputy director, exercising the authority of the director,” reads the letter, led by Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico. “For the same reasons that Mr. Pendley is unfit to be confirmed as director, he is unfit to exercise the authority of the director without being confirmed, and we ask that you remove Mr. Pendley from this position.”
AP Photo/Matthew Brown William Perry Pendley speaks at a conference in Fort Collins, Colorado, in October 2018.
Pendley, a former property rights lawyer at the right-wing Mountain States Legal Foundation who spent his career arguing that public lands should not even exist, has overseen the bureau for more than a year without ever facing the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation process. The succession order he signed in May states that in the absence of a permanent Bureau of Land Management director, the director’s authority and responsibility falls to none other than the bureau’s deputy director of policy and programs, the position Pendley has held since last July.
In recent weeks, the Interior Department has tried to split hairs about Pendley’s position. “William Perry Pendley is not, and has never been, Acting BLM Director,” an Interior spokesman recently told HuffPost, despite the fact that BLM and Pendley himself have used that title.
Two ongoing lawsuits ― one from conservation groups and the other from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) ― seek to remove Pendley from his acting duties, arguing that his tenure violates the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which limits the amount of time Cabinet officials may serve in an acting role to 210 days.
Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist who in June said Pendley is “doing a great job,” is unlikely to act on lawmakers’ recent demands.
“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,” said Interior spokesman Ben Goldey, adding that Pendley will continue to lead the bureau as deputy director for programs and policy.
Pendley became the BLM’s acting chief after decades running the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that has pushed for the government to sell off millions of federal acres. He is a former leader of the so-called “Wise-Use movement,” a group of anti-government organizations pushing to boost mining, drilling and logging on federal lands while deriding environmentalists as domestic terrorists. In the 1990s, he published anti-environmental pieces in a fringe magazine produced by Lyndon LaRouche, the late cult leader, convicted fraudster and paranoid conspiracy theorist, as HuffPost first reported.
“Mr. Pendley’s long public record of advocacy for selling off public lands and reducing access to them, attempts to undermine tribes and tribal sovereignty, and denial of climate change make his beliefs and actions antithetical to either role,” Senate lawmakers wrote in their Aug. 20 letter to Bernhardt.
In an interview last week with Nevada’s Elko Daily Free Press, Pendley was asked how much longer he would lead the bureau following the withdrawal of his nomination.
“I’m not going to go digging in the weeds, that’s above my pay grade,” Pendley told the newspaper.
“I will be running the bureau as long as President Trump and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt want me to,” he added.
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