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How Imperiled Are America's Public Lands?

The Trump administration's latest pick to manage nearly a quarter-billion acres of public land doesn't think the government should own land. But can he do anything about it?
The 97,880-acre Eagletail Mountains Wilderness is about 65 miles west of Phoenix, Arizona, in Maricopa, Yuma, and LaPaz counties. It's managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Among the lands the BLM oversees is the 97,880-acre Eagletail Mountains Wilderness in Arizona.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees more than 10 percent of all the land in the United States—more than any other federal agency. So when Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed an order this week making a vocal opponent of public lands the acting head of the BLM, it raised a few eyebrows.

William Perry Pendley, a Wyoming native, is a conservative lawyer and writer who worked in the Department of the Interior (DOI) during the Reagan administration and has since authored books about "government tyranny" in the West and the "oppression" of environmental regulation. In the debate over how federal lands in the West should be managed, Pendley doesn't mince his words: "The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold," he wrote in 2016.

Pendley's appointment as acting head of the BLM (President Donald Trump has never nominated an official head for the Senate-appointed position) elicited immediate objections from conservation groups. Phil Hanceford, the conservation director for The Wilderness Society, told the Assocated Press that the appointment "strongly suggests the administration is positioning itself to liquidate our shared public lands."

"The fox has taken control of the hen house," Land Tawney, the president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said in a statement. "He is poised to systematically dismantle the very resources he is charged with overseeing."

A spokesperson from the Department of the Interior, Molly Block, tried to quash concerns that Pendley's new role marked any shift in the administration's plans to sell or transfer land. "This Administration has been clear that we are not interested in transferring public lands," she told the Associated Press in an email.

Although Pendley might believe the federal government is obligated to sell off all of its public lands, it's not something Pendley alone has the power to do.

"If there's any comfort [in Pendley's appointment] it's that a sale of public lands would require an act of Congress," says BHA's conservation director, John Gale. And Gale doesn't think that's likely to happen. "Politicians have seen how unpopular that is," he says, referencing a 2017 debacle in which a Republican representative from Utah, Jason Chaffetz, introduced legislation to transfer three million acres of public land from federal to state ownership. Chaffetz quickly withdrew the bill after a whirlwind of protests and public outcry across the West led by organizations including BHA.

But even with public land transfers off the table, Pendley's new role at the head of the BLM is causing speculation that the Trump administration is trying to dismantle the land management agency from the inside out.

Pendley is the second high-profile critic of federal land management to be appointed to a leading position in the DOI within the last year. Karen Budd-Falen, another Wyoming attorney who has spent decades fighting federal management decisions, became the DOI's deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife in November. Both Pendley and Budd-Falen have spoken out against the very existence of the regulations they are now tasked with overseeing and enforcing.

Adding to the speculation is the fact that Pendley's appointment comes only two weeks after the Trump administration confirmed plans to relocate most of the BLM's headquarters staff out of Washington, D.C., fueling concern that the bureau is intentionally being decentralized to weaken it. Steve Ellis, the BLM's former deputy director of operations, told E&E News that the combination of events aims to dismantle the BLM. "When you connect the dots, it's not hard to see that is the administration's goal," Ellis said.

Even as the majority of Western residents increasingly identify as conservationists and say they want public lands protected, advocates like Gale say Pendley's ascent to the head of the BLM reaffirms the administration's commitment to oil and gas development over conservation and recreational opportunity.

"Public lands and waters bring people together," Gale says. "Conservation shouldn't be an afterthought."