William Perry Pendley, the longtime president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative legal fund that has fought the federal government on a host of issues in the American West, is now preparing for confirmation hearings to become the permanent director of the Bureau of Land Management.
Pendley faces challenges and criticism on a number of issues. Most recently, E&E News resurfaced an op-ed Pendley wrote for the Washington Examiner in 2017 in which he said the Black Lives Matter movement is “a lie that spreads like cancer through inner cities.”
In a written statement provided to The Durango Herald, Pendley did not take back his comments, instead saying he supported President Donald Trump’s instruction to expedite a civil rights investigation into the death of George Floyd and asserting that he has “never shied away from controversy.”
In fact, Pendley’s comments about the Black Lives Matter movement are just one of the many controversies Pendley has waded into as a lawyer in Washington and as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. As he faces a lawsuit and a potential confirmation hearing in an election year, the work that has defined Pendley’s career may soon be aired out on a national stage.
As someone born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to two parents who never made it past the fifth grade, Pendley said he is humbled to be where he is now. With two degrees from George Washington University, a law degree from the University of Wyoming, and several cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, Pendley has made a name for himself defending conservative causes.
“It’s funny, I look out today out of my office and I can see the dormitory where I worked one of five jobs to work my way through college, scrubbing dishes, serving food and mopping floors,” Pendley told the Herald.
Pendley’s career took off in Washington during the Reagan administration. During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan famously supported the sagebrush rebels – right-wing farmers, ranchers and loggers who vehemently opposed environmental laws on public lands. When he was elected, Reagan brought aboard lawyers who would work to limit the Interior Department’s ability to declare wilderness areas off-limits to development. Pendley was one of those lawyers.
Work with the MSLFPendley left the BLM in 1989 after the board of directors of the MSLF reached out to him to lead the organization, and he joined its office in Colorado. The MSLF was founded by Jeff Coors of the brewing family dynasty and received early funding support from the Koch brothers, all conservative mega-donors. Early on, the foundation was set up to defend property rights on public lands, which often meant supporting extractive industries like oil, gas and mining.
At the MSLF, Pendley made a name for himself defending controversial cases in the American West challenging the Endangered Species Act, defending mining claims on public lands and siding with the Bundy family in Nevada when they allowed their cattle to illegally graze on public lands.
He also sympathized with a case made famous by the Bundy family in Harney County, Oregon. Dwight and Steven Hammond illegally allowed their cattle to graze at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and allegedly sent death threats to the refuge’s director. After a federal judge sentenced the father and son to serve a mandatory minimum sentence for setting several fires on private property that spread onto BLM land, their case inspired the Bundys and other far-right extremists to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
Cristen Wohlgemuth, the current president and CEO of MSLF appointed after Pendley stepped down last year, supported Pendley in a written statement provided to the Herald.
“Mr. Pendley led this organization for many years. For that reason, he understands very well the threats farmers, ranchers and property owners face from overregulation,” Wohlgemuth said. “We wish him well in future endeavors.”
Peter Jenkins, a senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the people Pendley has supported over the years and the ties MSLF has maintained with extractive industries make him deeply concerned about Pendley’s ability to protect public lands. Pendley has released a 17-page list of people and organizations, such as the Colorado Farm Bureau and Colorado Mining Association, for whom he must recuse himself when it comes to decision-making at the BLM.
“Mr. Pendley was a very active, probably good advocate for his clients,” Jenkins said. “But those statements that he made at the Mountain States Legal Foundation are hopefully going to come back to haunt him.”
In 2016, Pendley published an op-ed in National Review in which he argued the Constitution instructed the federal government not to hold onto the land in its possession and thus those areas controlled by the BLM and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should be devolved to state control.
“I think he is deeply unqualified to serve as director of the Bureau of Land Management,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities. “I just don’t understand how someone who has spent his career advocating for that position can lead an agency that’s responsible for managing 245 million acres of America’s public lands.”
In speaking with the Herald, Pendley said the op-ed he wrote wasn’t actually his personal opinion, but rather he was “communicat(ing) the position” of others at the request of the National Review, for which he had previously written.
“People say, ‘Oh, Pendley has held that position forever.’ No. I never did, I never held that position,” Pendley said.
Pendley said that as an attorney, he has taken up a variety of positions both on behalf of and against the federal government, and his client at the BLM is now the American people.
“Today, I represent the Trump administration, and here’s our position: We are ultimately opposed to the wholesale transfer or disposal of federal lands, period,” Pendley said. “I’m a Marine, I get it, I follow orders.”
Fulfilling BLM dutiesThe BLM has suffered several setbacks during the Trump administration. The agency’s move to Grand Junction has led to a drain of employees who have sought jobs elsewhere rather than uproot their lives in Washington. And in 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the suspension of 37 Resource Advisory Committees, or RACs. The RACs were designed to solicit local input about BLM rules from various districts throughout the 13 Western states that contain vast amounts of federal lands.
Jimbo Buickerood, a leader of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, served on the RAC in the Tres Rios area from 2015 to 2017. He reapplied in 2018, and spent two years waiting to hear if he would be reinstated before reaching out in June.
“I said, ‘What’s going on with my application?’ and they said ‘Oh, you’d been denied an application,’” Buickerood said. “It had been four months that I was denied before they told me.”
Buickerood said he was disappointed to hear that, not least because the RAC has not had enough members for a quorum since his term ended. He said the BLM’s disinterest in filling out seats in the councils shows how the politicization of the agency has weakened avenues for public input.
“It’s unfortunate to cut the public out of public lands,” Buickerood said. “Decisions weren’t made at the BLM, they were made through the White House.”
Indeed, in at least eight instances the BLM has gone ahead with rule changes that weakened public lands protections despite 90% of public comments opposing the changes, according to a recent analysis performed by the Center for Western Priorities.
“He’s giving greater weight to one voice and cutting out the public when the public should have the opportunity to weigh in,” said Rokala, whose center led the analysis.
When asked whether he would pursue rules that faced steep public opposition like those analyzed by the Center for Western Priorities, Pendley dismissed the analysis as being led by “an organization that does not like President Trump being our president.” Pendley said that the BLM is “duty bound” to address substantive comments, and that the agency under his leadership has edited the wording of rules based on the criticism they receive.
“We want regulations that exhibit common sense, that are not overly burdensome, that meet our statutory regulatory obligations,” Pendley said, “but that at the same time allow Americans to get back to work.”
Pendley’s leadership, though, is also being challenged. When he was first assigned the title of acting director at the BLM on July 15, 2019, Pendley was not formally nominated. Instead, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt spent months recommitting him to the position on a temporary basis through the Vacancies Act, bypassing the need for a formal nomination.
In May, Western Watersheds Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a lawsuit against Bernhardt, Pendley and acting director of the National Parks Service David Vela, alleging they were illegally abusing the Vacancies Act to pursue a political agenda at the Interior Department rather than following the constitutional nominating process for the leader of an agency that requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
“The reason for Senate confirmation is first of all you weed out any fringe people,” Jenkins said. “Well, Mr. Pendley is definitely a fringe person, and he probably would not be able to get through Senate confirmation, and that’s probably why he was not ever nominated by the president until our lawsuit.”
A spokesperson with the Department of the Interior said Pendley “is committed to carrying out the administration’s priorities.” But it’s unclear what Pendley can and cannot do to carry out his duties leading the agency when he was never formally confirmed.
The Trump administration formally nominated Pendley as director of the BLM on June 26. If he is granted a full hearing, he is expected to face stiff questioning from Western senators on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, as well as from Ranking Member Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who said he could not support Pendley because of his comments about Black Lives Matter.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who serves on the committee, did not say whether he would vote for Pendley when asked in an interview with the Herald. But he said Pendley would have “very tough questions to answer” about his views on public lands.
“Selling our public lands is a nonstarter,” Gardner said.
Buickerood said he has been disappointed to see the morale of his contacts in the BLM sink over the course of the Trump administration. He said he hopes the politicization of the agency ends soon, so that it can be led by a “seasoned land professional.”
“It’s kind of the fox in the hen house,” Buickerood said. “You can ask the fox not to look hungrily at the hens in there, but you’re not always sure they’re gonna make the right choice on that one.”
Jacob Wallace is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.