Tester Presses BLM Chief William Pendley on Past Positions

‘You have a long record advocating selling off the public lands you now oversee,’ Democrat writes in letter

By Tristan Scott
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester speaks at the Last Best Outdoors Fest at The Coop in Columbia Falls on Aug. 22, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is concerned about the hiring of William Perry Pendley as the new acting co-director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), saying his vocal support for selling off millions of acres of public lands puts him at odds with the agency’s core mission and jeopardizes Montana’s lucrative outdoor recreation industry.

In an Aug. 7 letter to Pendley, the Democratic senator wrote “you have a long record advocating selling off the public lands you now oversee,” and pressed him for answers on his anti-public land positions while calling for him to recuse himself from a case involving lease cancellations on the Badger-Two Medicine.

Pendley, who was not available for comment and had not responded to the letter as of Aug. 9, was tapped to lead the BLM without U.S. Senate confirmation, which Tester described as troubling.

“You also have clear conflicts of interest between your past work and ongoing lawsuits involving the BLM,” Tester wrote, referencing his role defending the reinstatement of an oil and gas lease on the Badger-Two Medicine. “Public lands are essential to maintaining a robust outdoor economy and the Montana way of life. I will never stop defending public lands from being stripped from the people that use and cherish them.”

Tester asked Pendley to explain his opposition to federal land management and defend his argument laid out in a 2016 opinion piece entitled, “The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands.”

“Do you still agree with that assertion? Are you planning to sell off the Western lands you now oversee?” Tester wrote.

Tester cited other examples of Pendley’s anti-public lands stance, including in 2018 when he called the federal government “the world’s worst neighbor” and in 2014 when he stated “westerners know they deserve better, and that they and their states can be better stewards of their land than federal bureaucrats.”

Given that Pendley is now a federal employee with a leadership role over the public land he’s proposed selling, Tester asked whether he still believes that the federal government is incapable of responsible land management.

“Do you believe states and private land owners have the resources necessary to better suppress wildfires, support county governments, and actively protect and enlarge public access to public lands across all lands currently controlled by the agency you lead?” Tester wrote.

He also challenged Pendley for repeatedly calling for the repeal of the Antiquities Act, including calling on President Trump to revoke “illegally designated or expanded monuments.”

Finally, Tester demanded to know whether Pendley will recuse himself from cases between the Mountain States Legal Foundation, where Pendley served as president of the law firm, and the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM.

The firm is currently representing Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, a company that is actively fighting the cancellation of an oil and gas lease held on the Badger-Two Medicine, an area that is culturally and ecologically sacred to members of the Blackfeet Nation.

“This area is sacred to the Blackfeet Tribe,” Tester wrote. “The Department of Interior has repeatedly acknowledged that it broke the law by issuing these leases without consulting with the tribe and conducting sufficient environmental review. Interior is appealing the Solenex case to protect its decision to cancel all outstanding leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. Do you still believe that, as you stated in 2015, ‘This is something the tribe cannot stop?’ Do you believe that, despite the irreversible and drastic harm posed to the Blackfeet tribe and the self-confessed illegal actions taken by the Interior Department, that Solenex should be allowed to drill on this sacred land? Do you commit to recusing yourself from any decision relating to the Badger-Two Medicine area?”