Congressional Democrats grilled acting U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director William Perry Pendley during a committee hearing Tuesday for his perceived views on public lands.
The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider the BLM’s planned headquarters relocation from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction, Colo., on the Western Slope of the state.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, called Pendley “an avowed opponent of public lands.”
Pendley, who served in the U.S. Department of Interior in the Reagan administration, most recently was head of the conservative public interest law firm Mountain States Legal Foundation. In his work as an attorney, Pendley often defended property rights and the rights of ranchers.
Pendley was appointed acting BLM chief by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in July, while serving as deputy director of policy and programs, a position he took on earlier in the month.
“What better way to eliminate the BLM then to push out its staff to replace them with leadership whose writings and speeches over three decades suggest that he thinks the agency shouldn’t exist in the first place?” said Grijalva, who serves as chairman of the committee.
Pendley addressed the “attacks on his character” in his opening statement to the committee, saying, “it has been asserted that I do not believe in federal lands; that is not accurate and is a misrepresentation of my works and belief – I love America’s public lands.”
“I wholeheartedly support [President Trump] and Secretary Bernhardt’s crystal clear statement that we will not dispose of or transfer in a wholesale manner our public lands,” Pendley said.
Pendley added that the BLM would still maintain some functions in Washington, D.C., and that a western headquarters in Grand Junction would “enhance management, oversight and communication, improve customer service and partner-stakeholder engagement, increase functionality, lower lease payments and increase consolidations, and reduce travel expenses and personal costs.”
The hearing also included testimony from a professor, a non-profit expert, a Native American tribe and a Grand Junction business leader.
Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, defended the region as the location for the headquarters move.
“Mesa County where I reside is 76 percent public lands,” Brown said. “Our economy depends on that land and both the above ground and below ground natural resources that come from them. In Grand Junction we believe that we can do it all on public lands in a way that both protects and conserves the very lands that we rely on for a healthy economy.”
Tony Small, representing the Ute Indian Tribe, criticized the relocation in testimony, saying the BLM or the Department of Interior never reached out to the tribe for consultation.
The move does have some bipartisan support, among them U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, who’s running for president, and Cory Gardner.
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis also supports the move to Grand Junction.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, asked Pendley about him allegedly mocking Native American religious practices at a talk in 2009, where he used air quotes to describe land deemed holy by a tribe.
Pendley responded saying at the time he was speaking as an attorney representing private clients, adding that he’s looking forward to working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to develop tribes’ energy resources in his role with the BLM.
“I have a new client; my client’s the American people,” Pendley said when pressed by Haaland. “I’m a zealous advocate for my client; I’ll be a zealous advocate for the American people and serving their interest and the interest they have in multiple use lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.”
Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colorado, said that the state is well-equipped to host the BLM’s headquarters, but questioned Pendley’s past comments on public lands.
Neguse cited a 2016 article in National Review, in which Pendley wrote that, “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold. After all, jurisdiction over real property, that is, property law, was given to the states.”
Pendley responded saying he’s never advocated mass sale of public lands and repeated part of his opening statement.
BLM has said the relocation will save at least $50 million in taxpayer dollars over the next 20 years, citing lower cost of living in western Colorado and other states that will receive for BLM employees.