MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The contract for the acting director of the federal Bureau of Land Management has been extended. William Perry Pendley gets to keep his job for now. His short tenure has been controversial. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, Pendley spent much of his career as a vocal critic of the BLM.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The BLM doesn't make the news that often, but in the West, it's always at the center of public lands disputes. The agency is in charge of managing some 250 million acres of federal land, deciding who gets to do what on it and where. Now, that's roughly 10% of the entire United States.
Before being named acting director this past summer, William Perry Pendley was a property rights attorney with the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, where he represented ranchers, miners and others in land and access disputes against the federal government. In a scathing letter to the interior secretary, 12 Democratic senators, mostly from the West, charged that Pendley has spent his career undermining federal public lands protections. And they note that as recently as 2016, he wrote an article calling for the sale of Western public lands. Retired federal land managers are also calling for Pendley's removal.
PAT SHEA: Well, if you had faith in the captain of the Titanic not to hit an iceberg, then you probably are comfortable that Pendley will manage public land.
SIEGLER: Pat Shea is a former director of the BLM who's now a public lands attorney in Salt Lake City.
SHEA: He has no sense of history, and he has no sense of responsibility to the taxpayers throughout the country who have been paying for the management of public lands for more than 200 years.
SIEGLER: For his part, acting Director Pendley says his character is being unfairly maligned. Here he is testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee earlier this month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: It has been asserted that I do not believe in federal lands. That is not accurate and is a misrepresentation of my works and beliefs.
SIEGLER: A former Marine Corps captain who also served in the Department of Interior during the Reagan administration, Pendley defended his life's work.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PENDLEY: For me, public lands are a fact of life. And as a proud and loyal member of the Trump administration, I wholeheartedly support the president and Secretary Bernhardt's crystal-clear statement that we will not dispose of or transfer in a wholesale manner our public lands.
SIEGLER: Pendley has been presiding over the agency during a particularly tumultuous time, as the Trump administration is moving its headquarters outside of Washington, D.C., to the small western Colorado city of Grand Junction, a four-hour drive from the nearest major airport. Former federal land managers say this is part of a broader strategy to unravel the agency.
Pendley also recently recused himself from the administration's controversial plan to shrink the Grand Staircase National Monument in Utah because he represented Utah counties against environmentalists in an ongoing court battle. Sources who work in the field at the BLM who don't want to go on the record for fear of retribution say there's extremely low morale in the agency, with the emphasis on resource extraction above all else, like wildlife habitat or other conservation programs.
Again, Pat Shea, the former BLM director.
SHEA: People - when they go to camp at a BLM campsite and instead find an oil rig there or a large bulldozer for a mining operation, then they may finally wake up to what's happened in the last 18 months.
SIEGLER: Pendley was not available for an interview, but a top Interior official defended his work in a letter responding to the Democrats, saying Pendley is doing an admirable job leading the agency until a permanent director is found.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.