The Bureau of Land Management is about to open public lands to oil, gas, mining, and road construction as an outspoken opponent of federal land ownership takes the helm of the agency, former Interior Department officials and advocacy groups said July 30.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on July 29 named William Perry Pendley as acting BLM director at least through Sept. 30. The agency hired him July 15 as BLM deputy director of policy and programs.
As the former 29-year president of the pro-private-property rights group Mountain States Legal Foundation, Pendley fought the federal government to gain greater access to federal land for oil and gas development and mining.
Pendley is likely to reinforce the Trump administration’s efforts to open as much federal land as possible to oil, gas, and coal development by expediting the mineral leasing and approval processes and reducing restrictions on developing those leases, said Kit Muller, a strategic planner for BLM in Washington until he retired in 2018.
Given Pendley’s litigation record, Muller said he expects Pendley to make it more difficult for the BLM to assert its rights to federal ownership of public lands when local governments and private entities make claims to roadways and water rights on them.
If the BLM agrees to settle local claims to rights of way, it will allow local governments to open large areas of public land to road building and other access, Muller said.
The BLM manages about one-tenth of the land area of the U.S. and controls all federal onshore minerals, including oil, gas, and coal.
‘Trumpian’ and ‘Flamboyant’
Pendley’s appointment comes less than two weeks after Interior announced that BLM headquarters would move to Grand Junction, Colo., in an effort to station agency officials closer to the land it manages, which is mostly in the West.
Pendley’s appointment and the BLM’s headquarters move set the agency up for eventual dismantling, John Leshy, an emeritus professor of real property law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and former Interior Department solicitor in the Clinton administration.
Pendley is an “anti-establishment,” “Trumpian,” and “flamboyant” figure appointed to “disrupt” the federal government’s largest landowner, Leshy said.
“There’s obviously limits on what he can do,” Leshey said. “He can do a tremendous amount to disrupt the process and slow things down that were going in a direction he didn’t want. There’s a pretty large power there.”
‘Deferring to Commodity Interests’
Interior spokeswoman Melissa Brown said the department “adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands,” and it will manage public lands according to “multiple use and sustained yield principles.”
The agency didn’t respond to specific questions about Pendley and his vision for the agency.
The National Mining Association, which represents mining interests on federal lands, declined to comment. The Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies operating on federal lands, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Kathleen Clarke, a former BLM director under President George W. Bush who now serves as director of the Utah state Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, declined to comment. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office also declined to comment.
Utah, which passed a 2012 law demanding the federal government transfer nearly 31 million acres of federal lands to the state, was one of the centers of the anti-government Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and 80s.
Muller, the former BLM strategic planner, said Pendley’s appointment and the Interior Department previously naming former Mountain States Legal Foundation attorney Karen Budd-Falen as a deputy solicitor “underscore the administration’s interests in deferring to commodity interests in terms of the use of these lands, livestock grazing and oil and gas.”
Bob Abbey, the first BLM director in the Obama administration, said he doubts that Pendley’s appointment will have much of an effect on land management, because Pendley and Bernhardt share the same land management philosophy.
“The new acting director will be an ally to Secretary Bernhardt in helping to accomplish some of the priorities of Bernhardt’s agenda,” Abbey said.
Phil Hanceford, director of agency policy and planning for the Wilderness Society, said he will be watching for the BLM under Pendley to begin transferring or selling public lands under existing laws that allow him to do so without congressional approval.
The group also will be watching for BLM to issue a new planning rule that would limit public input and transparency, Hanceford said.
Pendley’s appointment could be renewed. The position requires Senate confirmation.
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