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Opponent of nation's public lands is picked to oversee them

July 30, 2019 - 1:35 pm
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By Ellen Knickmeyer and Brady McCombs, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A conservative lawyer and writer who argues for selling off the nation's public lands is now in charge of a nearly quarter-billion acres in federally held rangeland and other wilderness.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Monday signed an order making Wyoming native William Perry Pendley acting head of the Bureau of Land Management. The bureau manages nearly 250 million acres of largely wild public lands and their minerals and other resources in vast holdings across the U.S. West.

Pendley, a former midlevel Interior appointee in the Reagan administration, for decades has championed ranchers and others in standoffs with the federal government over grazing and other uses of public lands. He has written books accusing federal authorities and environmental advocates of "tyranny" and "waging war on the West." He argued in a 2016 National Review article that the "Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold."

In tweets this summer, Pendley has welcomed Trump administration moves to open more federal land to mining and oil and gas development and other private business use, and he has called the oil and gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, "an energy, economic, AND environmental miracle!"

The Interior Department appointed Pendley as the policy director at BLM, which manages one out of every 10 acres in the United States and 30% of the nation's minerals, in mid-July. It confirmed his appointment as acting head on Monday night.

A conservation group called Pendley an "ideological zealot" and pointed to the federal agency's announcement earlier this month that it planned to move the BLM's headquarters from Washington and disperse the headquarters staff among Western states.

Pendley's "ascending to the top of BLM just as it is being reorganized strongly suggests the administration is positioning itself to liquidate our shared public lands," said Phil Hanceford, conservation director for The Wilderness Society conservation advocacy group.

Interior spokeswoman Molly Block disputed that, saying in an email, "This administration has been clear that we are not interested in transferring public lands."

Block said agency management plans are developed to allow for a range of uses including energy development, cattle grazing, recreation and timber harvest while protecting scientific, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archaeological values.

An analysis of six BLM proposed management plans by the Pew Charitable Trust for parts of the Western United States found they significantly reduce protections that have been in place for decades and open up new land for mining and oil and gas.

In a letter to the agency, Colorado's Department of Natural Resources said the management plan for public lands in the southwest corner of the state don't do enough to protect the Gunnison sage grouse, which is a threatened species, or migrating wildlife.

But Utah cattle rancher and county commissioner Leland Pollock said the Pendley appointment is the latest indication that the Trump administration is returning BLM to its original mission of ensuring that public lands are open to multiple uses. That includes mining, ranching, cattle grazing, ATV riding, hunting mountain biking and hiking, he said.

He said the administration has made clear to him and others who had pushed for state control of federal lands that it has no intention of going that route. The 55-year-old is a commissioner in Garfield County in southern Utah, which has 93 percent federally owned lands.

"He's going to manage this thing just simply the way it was supposed to be managed," Pollock said about Pendley.

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McCombs reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writer Dan Elliott contributed to this report from Denver.

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