William Perry Pendley has long railed against the federal government’s vast land holdings, but shortly after arriving at the Bureau of Land Management, he was asked to approve the acquisition of the 16-acre Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum in Florida.
Oddly enough, the Western lawyer and author whose name is virtually synonymous with wrangling over public lands was happy to add a few more acres to the federal collection.
“I was delighted to do that,” Mr. Pendley said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times. “It’s a neat place and a fun place for people to visit. The Coast Guard didn’t need it, so the Bureau of Land Management took it over.”
The irony was not lost on Mr. Pendley, the longtime “sagebrush rebel” opponent of federal land holdings in the West who suddenly finds himself heading the federal agency charged with overseeing 245 million acres of federal land.
His arrival was greeted by an environmentalist, bureaucratic and media firestorm. Critics were quick to point to his 2016 National Review article in which he called on the federal government to sell off its Western lands, arguing that the Founding Fathers had intended it.
Western Resource Advocates called his appointment “an outright assault on our public lands system,” but Mr. Pendley said he has no intention of putting up “for sale” signs in Alaska, Idaho, Nevada or Utah, where the federal government owns about two-thirds of the acreage.
“You know, I’m a Marine, and I understand the chain of command and following orders,” Mr. Pendley said. “The president has made it very clear that we do not believe in the wholesale transfer of federal lands. That’s the president’s position, that’s the secretary’s position, and now that I’m deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, that’s my position.”
Best president since Reagan
Even if he never turns over an acre of federal property to Colorado or New Mexico, Mr. Pendley is too busy counting his blessings to complain, given the unexpected turn of events that brought him back to the Interior Department more than three decades after his tenure as an assistant secretary under President Reagan.
“I was just thrilled to come and be asked to be part of this because I greatly admire what President Trump has done,” said Mr. Pendley. “I think he’s been the best president for Westerners since President Reagan.”
Mr. Pendley arrives at a pivotal moment. The BLM is in the process of moving its headquarters and senior leadership from Washington to the Western states. At the same time, the administration is intent on expanding the oil and gas revolution as well as recreational opportunities on federal lands.
Mr. Pendley enthusiastically supports all of the above, citing the economic and social benefits for Westerners, especially those in rural areas who are often overlooked by policymakers.
“I’ve spent 30 years as an attorney working with rural Westerners trying to achieve this, which is essentially, ‘Hey, these people live here because they love being in the West, but at the same time, they need to pay for their schools, they need to pay for their hospitals, they need to have jobs, and they need to be able to get their kids to come back,’” he said.
He said Mr. Trump understands that.
“The president is committed to developing a true conservation and stewardship legacy,” he said.
“And what that means is taking care of the lands, expanding public access, enhancing visitor experience and, obviously, engaging in the multiple-use activities that Congress has mandated,” Mr. Pendley said.
Hitting the ground running
Few people have been involved with federal lands issues longer than Mr. Pendley, 74, who began as a staffer in 1976 for Sen. Clifford Hansen, Wyoming Republican. He went on to argue cases before the Supreme Court and write five books on “war on the West” themes.
Still, it looked a few months ago as if his 30-year tenure as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver would be his last act. Then Interior Secretary David Bernhardt called.
On July 15, Mr. Pendley was sworn in as BLM deputy director of policy and programs. Two weeks later, the secretary signed an executive order giving Mr. Pendley the “authority of the director.”
The order expires Sept. 30 and could be extended. Or the president could nominate a permanent director, which would require Senate confirmation. Whatever happens, Mr. Pendley plans to take advantage of the time he is given.
He held a three-day meeting this week with state directors in Washington, but he also plans to “spend a lot of time in the West, going into the field offices, getting the lay of the land,” as well as advancing the relocation of about 300 staffers in Washington to 12 Western states.
The plan was cheered by Western lawmakers, including Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, and Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, and slammed by others, notably Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, but “I think it’s awesome. I think it’s great,” Mr. Pendley said.
“Our frustration in the West is simply we’re dealing with a landlord who’s 2,000 miles away,” he said. “You just don’t understand situations without being on the ground. You just have such a better perspective. You can read all you want. You can listen to all the PowerPoints you want. You can have as many conference calls as you can plug into a day, but you don’t understand until you’ve got boots on the ground.”
The Public Lands Foundation, which represents about 600 retired BLM staffers, has accused the administration of trying to dismantle the agency with moves such as the relocation and Mr. Pendley’s appointment, but the new BLM leader stressed that staff development is a priority of his.
“I want them to be successful because these are career professionals,” Mr. Pendley said. “They have 30 to 40 years in the Bureau of Land Management. They want to be successful, and I want to help them be successful.”
The foundation insisted that the reorganization, which includes moving the headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, is “designed to fail,” creating a “weak and ineffective BLM management structure,” but Mr. Pendley said the plan would strengthen the agency.
“It’s going to make the Bureau of Land Management even more powerful and responsive,” said Mr. Pendley. “We’ll be better informed, more responsive, more accountable and more in touch with the people that matter.”