By Mara Abbott
Via Wyoming News Exchange
BUFFALO — In a move that spurred mixed reactions from sportsmen, ranchers, former Bureau of Land Management employees and the state's congressional delegation, Wyoming native William Perry Pendley was named acting director of the BLM in an order from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in late July.
Pendley is now in charge of managing 247.3 million acres of federal land nationwide, including 18.4 million acres of surface rights and 41.6 million acres of federal mineral estate in Wyoming lands he's previously advocated should be sold.
“The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold," Pendley wrote in a 2016 piece in the "National Review." BLM representatives have publicly stated the agency is not interested in transferring federal lands.
Still, Pendley's history has some people concerned.
"It would be devastating if we were to sell off public lands," said Lucas Todd, owner of the Sports Lure in Buffalo, citing the economic impact of recreation on the state. "I'm not sure if we're going to see a wholesale transfer or disposal of federal lands because he's just one person, but perhaps what we will see is an easing of regulations."
According to the state's 2017 Outdoor Recreation Industry Report, prepared for the Wyoming Business Council, the outdoor recreation economy generates $5.6 billion in consumer spending annually in Wyoming. It also supports 50,000 in-state jobs, almost double the 27,000 positions from oil, gas, mining and extraction combined.
“Most tourism businesses are local businesses with local employees," Todd said.
Statistically, the majority of the state's residents agree. In the Colorado College 2018 Conservation in the West poll, 78% of Wyomingites stated that they believe the presence of public lands and a lifestyle of outdoor recreation gives the West an economic advantage over other parts of the country.
This is not Pendley's first federal appointment, nor is it his first stint in the Powder River Basin. His past tenure as the deputy assistant secretary for energy and minerals, part of Wyoming-native James Watt's Department of the Interior during the Reagan administration, however, was brief and marred by controversy.
Pendley was reassigned from that post and the department after a 1984 Government Accountability Office report found that Interior officials made a series of inappropriate decisions in a 1982 basin coal lease.
The report found that the 1.6 million acre sale was executed between $60 and $100 million dollars below its proper valuation between $159 and $265 million in today's dollars. The deal had a lasting impact.
Federal coal leases carry an initial term of 20 years, and the GAO report mentioned Pendley by name in an analysis of factors that led to the below-market-price sale.
Wyoming's current congressional delegation has nonetheless come out in unanimous support of the appointment.
"Perry Pendley's experience dealing with public land issues and fighting for Wyoming makes him an excellent choice as Acting Director for the BLM," Rep. Liz Cheney said in a statement. "A Wyoming native, his past service in uniform and during the Reagan Administration exemplifies his devotion to this country and I know that he will put that commitment first in his new role."
"It is great news that a Wyoming native will be the acting head of the Bureau of Land Management," said Sen. Mike Enzi in a statement. "I have known William Pendley for many years, and I am confident he understands the unique public land challenges that Western states face. I look forward to his leadership at the Bureau of Land Management and working to ensure public lands are open for multiple uses."
Enzi spokesman Max D'Onofrio expanded on those remarks in response to a question about Pendley's past advocacy for the transfer of federal lands.
"It can be useful in certain situations where it benefits everybody, but (Enzi) is not proposing a massive transfer of lands to the state," he said. "I do not think that the appointment of Mr. Pendley is going to create that impetus."
Sen. John Barrasso, who has previously advocated for greater state control in the management
of federal lands, offered a similar statement.
"Mr. Pendley is from Wyoming and knows firsthand the impact public lands have on our state," Barrasso said. "I look forward to working with him to protect public access for those who live, work and recreate on public lands."
When asked how the senator would react to federal land transfer attempts during Pendley's tenure, Barrasso spokeswoman Laura Mengelkamp would not commit, stating, “Senator Barrasso remains committed to the efficient multiple-use management of our public lands to ensure continued public access, healthy wildlife and productive ecosystems. He also believes locally driven processes give people in Wyoming the best chance to decide how to manage these lands."
Former BLM employees, however, have expressed concern about their agency's new acting
"It's unusual to appoint somebody who's been negative to public lands," said now-retired Bill LeBarron of Worland, who worked for 40 years in the BLM, half of those in Wyoming. "It's very suspicious."
LeBarron is also concerned that the appointment represents a larger trend of what he describes as recent attempts to deflate the BLM.
After two and a half years in office, President Donald Trump has yet to appoint a permanent director for the organization, a position that requires Senate confirmation. Earlier this month, the Interior Department announced plans to relocate the BLM's headquarters from the nation's capital to Grand Junction, Colorado, which some believe will diminish its influence.
"The BLM was the greatest multiple-use agency in history," said LeBarron. "I think this administration wants to bring it down."
Others, however, expressed excitement about the appointment of a native Westerner to the bureau's top post.
"I was extremely excited and pleased for Perry Pendley to be appointed," said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. "I've worked with him for the past 25 years, and I'm very pleased with his talent and his perspective."
Pendley was president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Colorado law firm that describes itself as being dedicated to individual liberty and limited government, from 1989 until late last year. Magagna said the foundation had represented Wyoming Stock Growers in a number of cases concerning public lands, grazing and endangered species.
"I'm very comfortable with his ability to fill that role, and particularly pleased because I feel that I can work very well with him," Magagna said.
Still, the Sports Lure's Todd will be keeping an eye on the new acting director.
"It's important to me, it's important to my business," he said. "My kids, I want them to have the same opportunities. We live in the most amazing place on the planet."
Under Bernhardt's order, Pendley's appointment as acting director will last through the end