Timothy Egan: The Great Western Public Land Robbery

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) This Dec. 28, 2016, file photo shows the two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah's Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.

Imagine if the head of Philip Morris were put in charge of the American Cancer Society. Imagine he had spent his career trying to fight cancer cures, while promoting one of the world’s leading carcinogens. For good measure, he mocked the mission of his new employer and insulted the prayers of those looking for hope.

No, I’m not talking about Ken Cuccinelli, the acting chief of federal immigration services, who wants to rewrite the poem on the Statue of Liberty to say something like: Keep out, wretched masses. Only well-off whites are welcome here.

The gallery of awful human beings, monumental incompetents, wife-beaters, frauds and outright criminals appointed to high positions in the Trump administration is large and varied. As wanted posters, they would fill an entire post office wall.

But you have to go pretty deep into the ranks of the Worst People to find someone equal to the man Donald Trump has now put in charge of your public lands — William Perry Pendley. This is another Onion headline that writes itself: Trump’s pick for public lands doesn’t believe in public lands.

The man now overseeing 248 million acres owned by every American citizen is a mad-dog opponent of the very idea of shared space in the great outdoors. He has spent his professional life chipping away — in court, in public forums, in statehouses — at one of the most cherished of American birthrights.

It’s easy to overlook the latest villain from this White House because the pipeline from hell just keeps churning them out. At the top, the occupant of the Oval Office never stops debasing his office: the racism, the nut-job conspiracy theories, the thumbs-up pictures with newly orphaned babies — and that was just during the last week or so.

But behind the tragicomedy of this presidency, some laser-focused opportunists have been cleaning up. Opponents of public health and safety, of clean water, open space and a chemical-free food chain have never had a better chance to run the show.

This week, it was a rollback of the Endangered Species Act, the most powerful environmental law in history, a statutory savior of bald eagles, grizzly bears and countless other vital links in the web of life. Could anything be more Trumpian than going after the law that saved the national bird?

Weakening the Endangered Species Act by executive fiat is illegal on the face of it, but the law has never stopped this administration cold in its tracks. While the courts sort it out, the natural world slips further into peril. In May, a United Nations report found that 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction. And for those of you who think you can take refuge in one of the new gilded bunkers built for the rich and apocalyptic, this report had direct implications for human survival as well.

The Trump strategy is to destroy from within. He has a secretary of state who doesn’t believe in diplomacy, an attorney general who scoffs at lawbreakers in the executive branch and now a man who opposes public lands to run the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees an area nearly 50% larger than the state of Texas.

Pendley spent decades suing the government for trying to protect fish and wildlife and clean water. “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” he wrote in 2016. He’s also expressed sympathy for the deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy, a hero of anti-public land terrorists. And he’s mocked Native American religious claims to sacred sites.

Now, he’s free to fulfill the wish list of his former industrial clients. He’s the land bureau’s acting director, just like Cuccinelli at immigration. It’s another Trump tactic to put people in temporary charge of important arms of government, hacks who could never be approved by Congress. In the short term, they do enough damage to satisfy their big-money handlers.

Pendley was given this powerful perch by way of executive order orchestrated by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist who is now doing the work of his ex-clients on the taxpayer’s dime.

Americans, by huge margins, love their public land — a sentiment shared by Trump voters. In the West, where the bureau’s land includes prime habitat for wildlife, and a favored open range for hunters, anglers, hikers and birders, Trump’s policies could cost Republicans Senate seats in Montana, Colorado and even Texas.

But what’s good in the political backlash to bad policies still leaves us at a dangerous moment for nature. Trump has gutted two national monuments in the West, the largest environmental rollback in history. And he’s given fresh life to a colossal mine that could imperil the world’s largest wild salmon fishery, in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

I was in Montana last week, sitting around a campfire after a day spent hiking and swimming in a public forest full of summer enchantment. My Montana family members and I were talking about how the rich pay $1,500 a day to go “glamping” in this Last Best Place. We had it free — the forest, the river, a meadow bursting with wildflowers and huckleberries — for now.

Timothy Egan, a contributing Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, won the National Book Award for his history of people who lived through the Dust Bowl, “The Worst Hard Time.”