There’s a battle raging in the West. A movement for local interests to take control of federal lands. It’s been gaining strength within the Trump administration and it’s culminating with the reorganization of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency charged with managing and protecting these lands, and with the installment of a staunch state’s rights proponent at its head.
It could be the beginning of the end for our public lands and the wildlife, including wild horses and burros, that live on them.
On July 15, William Perry Pendley, a conservative states-rights lawyer who has advocated for the selling off of millions of acres of public land, was quietly placed to oversee the BLM in an acting role, avoiding the Senate confirmation process and attendant scrutiny of his record.
Until the end of last year, Pendley was president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which was set up to defend private “individual property rights” against litigation from environmental groups. He’s represented various Utah counties as intervenors seeking to slash the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And, his Twitter handle is “Sagebrush_Rebel” — an homage to the extremist movement of the late 1970s and early 80s that protested federal land oversight over commercial industries such as timber, livestock, oil and gas, and mineral extraction operating on public lands.
Pendley and his supporters, including several Utah state officials, seek to bypass the federal laws protecting our public lands and the wildlife who call these lands home. They want local control and unfettered access for commercial exploitation to the detriment of wild landscapes that Utahns and all Americans cherish.
Under the current set up, albeit not perfect, the BLM manages the land for multiple uses. This means that industry must coexist with “uses” like recreation, wildlife, and wild horses and burros. Public comment periods and environmental review are required before policies and actions affecting these lands are implemented.
By contrast, if the state took control, federal requirements would not apply, and local officials would be free to make decisions for the land without any input from citizens. This would lead to rampant industry takeover of our public lands — laying waste to the natural environment and wild animals.
Ultimately, powerful private interests will silence the voice of all Americans who care about preserving our natural wonders.
America’s wild horses and burros will especially suffer in the crosshairs. Their federal protection has long been a source of resentment for corporate ranchers enjoying subsidized grazing on public lands. Currently, thanks to annual appropriations riders in Congress, they cannot be sold for slaughter. However, state management would bypass such congressional prohibitions, leading to their mass roundup and brutal slaughter.
Effectively, state control of wild horses would turn back the clock nearly five decades to a time when ranchers ran the West, rounding up mustangs by the thousands and selling them off to dog food and glue factories.
Most of the country would agree that the BLM isn’t doing a great job of managing our public lands. The agency is underfunded, the employees overworked and its duty caught between the demands of industry and the desires of the American public. But state control would be far worse. Instead of herds of antelope and free-roaming wild horses, pristine rivers and valleys, industrialized landscapes will punctuate the west.
Imagine a graveyard of formerly public lands littered with oil rigs, decapitated mountains and massive numbers of livestock trampling any semblance of the natural environment. This not what Americans or the majority Utahns want from our public lands, but it’s where we’re headed under this administration, especially with Pendley at the helm of the BLM.
Grace Kuhn is an avid traveler to Utah’s public lands and the communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign.