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New BLM Chief Is Latest Interior Official Caught Up In Controversies

Photo of William Perry Pendley.
U.S. Department of the Interior
William Perry Pendley is the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management.

The newly-minted head of the Bureau of Land Management is defending himself after attracting the ire of environmental groups. They are concerned about potential conflicts of interest and his views on public lands. 

William Perry Pendley, a conservative lawyer and self-proclaimed ‘sagebrush rebel,’ has long advocated for selling off federal public lands – including the ones he now manages as the acting director of the BLM. As a top official in the Reagan administration, he pushed for selling all BLM-managed lands west of the Mississippi River, according to notes obtained by the energy and environment news service E&E News. 

But in an interview last week with a Montana conservative talk radio show, Pendley said his personal views won’t inform how he manages the agency.

“I’m a Marine. I understand the chain of command. I know how to follow orders. I get it,” he said. “So whatever I’ve done or said in the past is irrelevant.” 

The environmental watchdog group Western Values Project isn’t convinced by Pendley’s defense.

“It’s time for the Trump administration to end the public land grab, and appoint a director that — at the bare minimum — has not openly called for the elimination of federal public lands,” deputy director Jayson O’Neill said in a statement. 

Pendley is also under fire for his role as a lawyer with the non-profit Mountain States Legal Foundation. There he worked on behalf of stockgrowers, energy interests and Western counties. 

After environmentalists filed lawsuits opposing the Trump administration’s reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in 2017, Pendley, representing three Utah counties, intervened on their behalf and defended the shrinkage. 

An Interior Department spokesperson said Pendley has since recused himself from all matters related to the Mountain States Legal Foundation, including those associated with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. However, he is still listed as a lead attorney on one of the cases.

O’Neill argued that Pendley’s work as an attorney on these lawsuits puts him at odds with a Trump ethics pledge he signed. The executive order requires officials to recuse themselves from matters they worked on in the private sector. 

“In what is a clear conflict of interest, Pendley is still the attorney of record fighting to maintain the illegally reduced national monuments as the bureau he now oversees plows forward with new management plans,” O’Neill said. 

The BLM is currently implementing two updated management plans for the contested monuments, which would open up previously protected land to potential mining and oil drilling. 

During the radio interview, Pendley called the administration’s move to shrink the two Utah national monuments “incredibly impressive.”

“It took a lot of courage to do — to revoke the size of those monuments,” he said. “There was absolutely no question they were illegal and so I praise the president for that.”

Ex-industry lobbyist and current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is also facing ethics inquiries after he appeared to help out former clients. His predecessor, Ryan Zinke, resigned amid questions about his ethics. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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