The appointment comes at a critical time for the BLM, which manages more than a tenth of the nation’s land and oversees the federal government’s oil, gas and coal leasing program. Weeks ago, Interior officials announced that the department would reassign 84 percent of the bureau’s D.C. staff out West by the end of next year. Only a few dozen employees, including Pendley, would remain in Washington.
After more than 2½ years in office, Trump has yet to nominate a permanent director for the BLM. By placing Pendley in charge of the agency, Bernhardt has installed a longtime crusader for curtailing the federal government’s control of public lands.
In the three decades since serving under Reagan, Pendley has sued the Interior Department on behalf of an oil and gas prospector, sought to undermine protections of endangered species such as the grizzly bear, and pressed to radically reduce the size of federal lands to make way for development.
“The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” he wrote in a National Review magazine article in 2016. “Westerners know that only getting title to much of the land in the West will bring real change,” he said.
His views differ sharply from those articulated by former interior secretary Ryan Zinke, who said, “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land.” Asked whether Pendley’s appointment marks a change in policy, an Interior Department spokesman said Tuesday said that “the administration adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands.”
Pendley’s legal ties, as well as his policy positions, have attracted scrutiny. Environmental groups are pressing Interior to formally recuse Pendley from any involvement in a court case in which he is still the counsel of record representing aging businessman Sidney Longwell and his small company, Solenex.
Solenex leased 6,247 acres in northwestern Montana in 1982 during the Reagan administration for about $1 an acre. Longwell wants permission to build a six-mile service road and bridge over the Two Medicine River on lands considered sacred by the Blackfeet tribe. Interior wants to cancel the lease. He would use the road to bring in drilling rigs and other oil exploration equipment.
“The Department’s career ethics professionals are working closely with Mr. Pendley and will advise him as necessary,” an Interior official said.
“Oil wells do not fit our traditional knowledge system of taking care of the land,” said John Murray, the historic preservation officer of the Blackfeet tribe. “A lot of our origin stories are right in that area.”
The exploration leases cover an area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest where the Badger Creek and Two Medicine River have their headwaters. The expanse is surrounded by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness area and the Blackfeet Indian reservation.
Administrations that succeeded Reagan’s sought to block development, arguing that the leases were issued improperly in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.
Obama officials proposed buyouts, and in November 2016, Devon Energy took one. That left just two leases: held by Solenex and by oil driller W.A. Moncrief Jr.
The Obama administration offered to give Solenex enough money to cover expenses to date, while a private philanthropy offered additional funding. The Blackfeet tribe, which says the current leases are in particularly sensitive places, offered a swap for 26 parcels of tribal land already producing oil. The tribe said other parts of its reservation do not have the same sensitivity.
Longwell and Pendley refused.
Murray called it all part of “a big chess game.”
When Zinke — a Montana native — took the helm of Interior in 2017, he said he would keep pressing for the cancellation of the leases. But earlier this year, the department said it would drop efforts to cancel Moncrief’s lease while still trying to terminate the Solenex lease.
Pendley’s ties to the most conservative networks run deep. Pendley’s Mountain States Legal Foundation, founded in 1977 and initially run by Reagan’s controversial first interior secretary, James G. Watt, has received backing from ultraconservative groups and individuals such as the Koch-linked Donors Trust and beer tycoon Joseph Coors.
Pendley will once again oversee a coal leasing program he was found to have mismanaged.
Pendley followed Watt into the Reagan administration and was cited in a 1984 report from the Government Accountability Office, then the General Accounting Office, on ethical missteps among leaders of the federal coal leasing program and an “incomplete and unreliable” review by the agency’s inspector general.
The GAO report highlighted a dinner that Pendley, then head of the Minerals Management Service, and another Interior official and their wives attended with two coal company attorneys on March 19, 1982, the same day Pendley and his colleague had made a favorable decision regarding bids on Powder River Basin coal leases. The coal company officials picked up the entire $494.45 tab, or $1,343 in today’s dollars.
Pendley, who had moved from Interior to the Department of the Navy, resigned the year after the GAO’s findings became public.
“By fixing this pivotal deal in 1984 — and getting away with it — Mr. Pendley may be one of the most important faceless functionaries in the expansion of coal use in the United States,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in an email. He said the report showed “a much wider pattern of high-ranking employees and administration officials cutting deals with the industry without regard for laws.”
As a result, he said, “billions of tons of coal could come to market from the Powder River Basin for the next now 40-plus years at below market prices due to what was done at the time.”
Since Pendley joined the Mountain States Legal Foundation in 1989, the group has represented a variety of clients in political cases. One was racecar driver Bobby Unser, who was fined $75 for straying into federal lands on a snowmobile. Unser said he and a friend got lost in a blizzard.
In 2007, the foundation, represented by Pendley himself, filed a suit seeking to narrow protections for grizzly bears on national forest lands. It sought to reverse a U.S. Forest Service ruling that barred motorized access to park land to protect grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act. The filing called the ruling “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion.”
Pendley, who wrote a book on Reagan’s legacy called “Sagebrush Rebel,” has become a pundit on the conservative circuit. His other books include “Warriors for the West: Fighting Bureaucrats, Radical Groups, and Liberal Judges on America’s Frontier” and “War on the West: Government Tyranny on America’s Great Frontier.”
During an appearance at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, Pendley said that “you can’t understand the battle against fossil fuels without understanding what is at the core of the environmental movement and the environmental extremists. . . . They don’t believe in human beings.”
Pendley also expressed sympathy for Cliven Bundy, who ended up in a heavily armed standoff over whether he could graze his cattle on federal land in violation of federal conservation efforts.
More recently, in a September 2017 article in the National Review magazine, Pendley attacked then-Interior Secretary Zinke for failing to do enough to reduce the size of the country’s national monuments. Zinke, while approving reductions in the size of four national monuments, favored the protection of the Badger-Two area Solenex wanted to explore.
“Secretary Zinke recommended decreasing the size of only four of the most blatantly illegal national monuments while leaving the boundaries of all the others standing with mollycoddle language, which will soon get stricken by environmentalists,” Pendley wrote. He urged Trump to “heed his own pugnacious and not Zinke’s pusillanimous counsel.”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.