Explainer: William Perry Pendley and the Fight Over the Bureau of Land Management

William Perry Pendley made a career out of fighting against the Bureau of Land Management before becoming its acting director and greenlighting mining and drilling plans on public lands across the west. Now, a federal court's decision that he served illegally could put those plans in danger.

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A month after a federal judge ruled that he had been serving unlawfully and ordered his removal, William Perry Pendley, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, is still at the agency’s helm—and he says he’s not going anywhere.

The ruling by Judge Brian Morris came in response to a lawsuit filed by Governor Steve Bullock of Montana and the state’s Department of Natural Resources, who argued that Pendley, who has not been confirmed by the Senate, had no authority to make decisions on behalf of the Bureau, and sought to undo previous actions he had taken as the agency’s head. More broadly, the suit aimed to call into question President Trump’s policy of using unconfirmed “acting” directors to head up federal agencies, thereby sidestepping the Senate’s authority to confirm or reject them.

Morris agreed, writing that Pendley’s path to the top of the agency “did not follow any of the permissible paths set forth by the U.S. Constitution,” and ordered Pendley to vacate his post.

The problem: Pendley, who has publicly stated that he viewed the lawsuit as an attack on the Trump administration, refuses to step down. In a recent interview with the Powell Tribune, Pendley claimed that the federal judge’s order “has no impact,” and said that he would continue to serve as head of the BLM.

“I have the support of the president. I have the support of the Secretary of the Interior and my job is to get out and get things done to accomplish what the president wants to do,” Pendley said.

Pendley, a conservative activist and longtime government official, is widely known for his controversial opinions regarding conservation, climate change and human rights. He publicly rejected climate change, referring to it as “junk science” and was a strong opponent of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In recent op-eds, he expressed anti-immigrant and anti-Native American sentiments, and denounced the Black Lives Matter movement, calling it a “terrible lie.”

Pendley is also adamantly against the federal ownership of public lands: He was a longtime president of Mountain States Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm that advocates for the sale of federal land. He also publicly supported Cilven Bundy, who headed up a confrontation with federal agents over unpaid grazing fees and supported the takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by a right-wing militia.

Despite Pendley’s combative history with the BLM, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt appointed him as its head in July of 2019; he’s remained in the post since due to numerous short-term extensions. President Trump formally nominated Pendley to the Senate on July 30, but withdrew the nomination in early September ahead of what observers predicted would be a difficult fight in the chamber. Pendley continues to exercise power over the agency as its deputy director for policy and programs.

The court’s ruling has prompted questions about whether the decisions Pendley made during his 14 months as BLM director should stand. Under Pendley’s leadership, the BLM expanded drilling programs on public lands and issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement for leasing and development in Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge. He also initiated the relocation of the BLM headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction, Colorado, where the Bureau would be neighbors with several oil and gas companies.

Tracy Stone-Manning of the National Wildlife Federation says these and other decisions by Pendley should be reversed.

“William Perry Pendley was illegally installed as the director of the Bureau of Land Management, which means that all of his decisions during that time were made illegally,” she said in a press release. “Secretary Bernhardt needs to scrap all Bureau of Land Management plans, decisions, and regulations over the past 14 months that bear Mr. Pendley’s signature or influence so they can be properly done over by a legally confirmed director of the agency.”

While the idea of invalidating a year’s worth of BLM decisions may seem extreme, Stone-Manning isn’t alone in demanding it. In an October 6 letter to David Bernhardt, 60 conservation organizations outlined the decisions in question and called for them to be invalidated; They also called for the ousting of another official, Margaret Everson of the National Park Service, who is serving in her position without Senate confirmation. Everson’s position is among 133 government positions lacking a nominee, and thus, a Senate confirmation, under President Trump.

On Friday, those critics notched a victory when Morris invalidated three management plans that the BLM put in place in Montana, including one that would open more than a half-million acres of public land to resource extraction. And while the agency has vowed to fight the decision in court, in may not be the last salvo in the battle: in his decision, Morris wrote that “it remains probable” that more of Pendley’s decisions could get the same treatment.

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