‘Not going to happen:’ BLM’s acting director wants to prioritize wildfires and horses, not transferring public lands

During his time as a Colorado-based lawyer fighting for the rights of property owners, William Perry Pendley argued for selling off public lands in support of Utah’s long-standing claim to millions of federal acres within its borders.

“The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” Pendley wrote unequivocally in 2016.

Now that the former Marine captain heads the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees a huge portion of Utah’s landmass, Pendley is adamant that “disposing” of these lands — except as ordered by Congress — will play no part in how he exercises his duties at the BLM, which he has led in acting capacity for the past 14 months.

“I’m a Marine. I follow orders,” he said, with a mock salute, during a wide-ranging interview with The Salt Lake Tribune last week at the BLM’s Utah state office in Salt Lake City. “President [Donald] Trump and [Interior] Secretary [David] Bernhardt have made crystal clear this administration’s opposition to the wholesale transfer or disposal of public lands. In other words, not going to happen.”

While Utah may not see its land-transfer wish fulfilled under Trump’s presidency, the state’s leaders and county commissioners have clearly enjoyed a greater say in how public lands are administered, starting with the dismantling of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in 2017. To the dismay of environmentalists, the BLM has offered more land for oil and gas leasing, stripped more pinyon and juniper trees from rangelands, OK’d mine expansions and expanded motorized access.

But Pendley said his marching orders are centered on fighting and preventing fires, reducing the numbers of wild horses and burros, and accommodating more recreation.

The BLM administers 42% of the land in Utah, or 23 million acres, plus the minerals under 8 million acres of national forest. Nationally it oversees 245 million acres, nearly all of it in Western states, and many more acres of offshore oil and gas reserves.

Pendley had been heading the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation when he switched hats in July 2019 to join the BLM as its deputy director for programs and policy. Because the agency has not had a Senate-confirmed director since Trump took office, Pendley has been exercising the authority of the directorship the whole time. Seen by conservation groups as a violation of the Vacancies Reform Act, the arrangement is the subject of a lawsuit.

Pendley was not letting that bother him recently while he was touring Utah’s recreation hot spots with the BLM’s new state director, Greg Sheehan, and district managers.

Topping his list of things to explore was how to spend the new funding stream created by the Great American Outdoors Act, recently signed into law. The law provides billions to the National Park Service to address deferred maintenance, but it reserves 5% of the act’s appropriations for the BLM to fix its own aging roads, buildings and trails and bolster the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). For decades, this fund has been tapped to acquire private land that supports public recreation, but until the Great American Outdoors Act it remained chronically underfunded.

The BLM can count on $85 million in additional funding for each of the next five years. A total of $36.5 million will be invested in Utah, where public lands have seen relentless increases in outdoor recreation.

“Our touchstone is how can we increase public access to recreational activities,” Pendley said. “We’ve reached out to Greg Sheehan and all our state directors and said, ’What do you got? What’s in the hopper? What could we do so that we can look back and say, ’That was a successful use of our funds?’”

He was not prepared to identify any Utah projects that could be pulled off with the new money, but he did cite one recent example in which the BLM acquired a small parcel, using LWCF money, on the banks of a Colorado river popular for floating.

“We picked up less than five acres and all of a sudden you have a takeout place, so you have a whole stretch of river that’s made available for recreational use just by the acquisition of a handful of private property,” Pendley said. “That’s the bang for the buck kind of thing with regard to land acquisition.”

In another instance, the BLM acquired 113 acres of tortoise habitat in Utah’s Red Cliffs National Conservation Area at a cost of $5 million.

Wildfires and horses

In his interview with The Tribune, Pendley emphasized two issues that he believes pose “existential threats” to the West’s public lands: wildfires and wild horses.

When he assumed leadership of the BLM, he was appalled by the findings of a new report detailing the impact of wild horses, which are protected under federal law.

“It says they are degrading the lands to such a degree, that some of the lands will ‘never recover,’” Pendley said. “Here’s our experts saying it’s so bad, there’s not enough seed or fertilizer or technology or time or water to get this solved. That blew me away. There’s a lot of big deals out there, but they’re big deals I can’t do anything [about]. This is a big deal that’s on my plate.”

Under his watch, the BLM has begun to implement a $1 billion, 10-year plan to remove about 130,000 horses and burros from public rangelands in Nevada, Utah and neighboring states with the goal of getting the population to 27,000, the number the BLM determined is the appropriate level. The plan also includes subsidizing adoptions to the tune of $1,000 per horse and the use of a contraceptive called GonaCon.

In the past, the BLM has relied on the vaccine PZP, endorsed by horse advocacy groups, but no more.

“We’re trying new fertility controls,” Pendley said. “The problem with PZP is it requires multiple gathers. They need a new inoculation each year. We’ve got a new product out there that we think will last [with] a one-time application.”

Congress has forbidden the BLM from euthanizing wild horses or selling them for meat, so many of the gathered horses will join thousands of others already in corrals to live out the rest of their days.

“We’re spending $50 million a year for care and feeding,” Pendley said. “I’d like to use that on hazardous fuel reduction. I’m spending billions on fighting fire. How about a little bit more money to prevent that next fire.”

Pendley expects to ramp up the removal of pinyon pines and junipers that officials say have encroached onto rangelands that were once dominated by sagebrush.

“Both the president and the secretary of Interior issued strong orders on reducing hazardous fuels,” he said. “We set ourselves a target of 600,000 acres in fiscal year 2019. We hit 864,000.”

About half of those acres saw mechanical treatments, typically involving the removal of pinyons and junipers, while the rest were split between prescribed burning and chemical treatments. The BLM is using “categorical exclusions” to the National Environmental Policy Act to authorize the pinyon-juniper treatments without environmental reviews. Pendley defended that practice, which has drawn fire from environmental groups.

“We know that pinyon-juniper across the West has replaced the sagebrush that greeted the pioneers,” Pendley said. “It’s not good for the habitat. And it’s not good for people. It’s not good for wildlife.”

Moving out West

Also under Pendley’s watch, the BLM shifted its headquarters 2,000 miles west to Grand Junction, Colo., a move had been orchestrated by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke long before Pendley’s arrival. Still, critics find much to fault with the relocation, saying it is designed to “eviscerate” the agency, rid it of its career expertise and consolidate decision-making authority with Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist.

Bernhardt and predecessor Zinke always said moving the BLM’s leaders from Washington to Western states would put the agency closer in touch with the communities they serve. Under the move, 61 positions remained in Washington, while 41 positions moved to Grand Junction, and a few hundred to various state and district offices, including 36 to Utah that are largely assigned to recreation.

Pendley said he helped find other positions in the federal government for the many BLM staffers who chose not to move West with their jobs.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration nearly four years ago, the agency has yet to be led by a Senate-confirmed director. Pendley has been the longest-serving acting director after a parade of others that included Brian Steed, who left the BLM to lead the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Trump did nominate Pendley as BLM director a few months ago but withdrew the nomination shortly before it was to be heard in the Senate last month.

Aaron Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities contends Pendley should look at that as his cue to take a hike.

“In the past, when a nominee couldn’t get confirmed, they were done,” said Weiss, citing the case of Rhea Suh, President Barack Obama’s pick to serve as assistant Interior secretary over the BLM. “Senate Republicans killed it, and she left Interior. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. If Trump was following that precedent, Pendley would have been gone. Anything he has done [as acting director] can be challenged on those grounds.”

Pendley wouldn’t comment on the administration’s withdrawal of his nomination other than to indicate it didn’t really bother him.

“That’s above my pay grade. Here’s what I’m glad about. The president has confidence in me,” he said. “Secretary [Bernhardt] left me in this position and told me to come out here, move the national headquarters to Grand Junction and go out and fight fire and increase recreational opportunities. So I’m back home in the West.”