Rosen, Senate Dems face uphill fight against Trump public lands pick

War on the West!
William Perry Pendley's nomination to lead the Bureau of Land Management was a political liability to vulnerable western GOP senators. (Official photo)

Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen is among the Democrats hoping to thwart President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a man she says is unfit to head the agency because of his record in favor of aggressive oil and gas extraction on public lands.

Trump nominated William Perry Pendley to lead the BLM on June 30. His nomination will come under review in an upcoming hearing in the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on which Nevada’s other senator — Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto — sits.

The committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on the nomination. The Democrats who oppose him want a confirmation hearing as soon as possible to highlight a record they say is out of step with the bureau’s mission.

Democrats hold a minority of seats on the committee and in the Senate chamber and face an uphill battle in their effort to sink the nomination.

Pendley has led the BLM in an acting capacity since July 2019. Rosen, other Democrats and conservation groups say his position to aggressively open public lands to oil and gas extraction could have particularly harsh consequences for Nevada, where the BLM manages two-thirds of all land.

Before joining the administration last year, Pendley ran the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for reducing federal control of Western lands in favor of private property rights. Pendley was also a frequent contributor to the conservative magazine National Review, where he suggested that the federal government should sell all its public lands and criticized former Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, saying he didn’t go far enough in opening national monuments for economic and recreational uses. He has also called human-induced climate change “fiction.”

He has also criticized the Obama administration’s antiterrorism strategy for focusing on homegrown right-wing extremists, whom Pendley said were “espousing strong views regarding the mischief afoot in Washington,” rather than on “Islamic radicals.” He also blamed a number of national problems on “illegal immigrants” and wrote that the Black Lives Matter movement is “based on a lie.” Much of Pendley’s earlier writing was first reported by CNN.

In a written statement, a BLM spokesman defended Pendley’s fitness to run the Bureau of Land Management.

“Mr. Pendley brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Department and is committed to carrying out the Administration’s priorities and achieving the BLM’s multiple-use mission for the betterment of the American people,” said the statement provided by BLM spokesman Derrick Henry. “He also has relentlessly championed BLM’s diverse portfolio of land uses, whether recreational, commercial or conservation, and supported the dedicated career BLM professionals who work diligently to accomplish the agency’s work across the nation.” 

His record on environmental issues and public lands especially troubles Rosen and others.

“For decades, Nevada has worked side by side with the Bureau of Land Management to manage and oversee the preservation of our majestic public lands,” Rosen said in a written statement. “Mr. Pendley’s nomination puts this relationship in peril.”

The issue is especially important for Nevada, where the BLM manages 67 percent of all land and the federal government owns 80 percent, more than any other state. Nevada contains more BLM acreage than any state other than Alaska.

“That’s a lot of land to put in the hands of someone who isn’t particularly fond of public land,” said Russell Kuhlman, the executive director of the Nevada Wildlife Federation.

Kuhlman said his group isn’t opposed to some fossil fuel extraction as part of BLM’s portfolio, but he worries that Pendley would prioritize oil and gas access at the expense of the bureau’s conservation and recreation missions.

A 2018 Pew study estimated recreational trips to BLM land contributed $3 billion per year to the economies of 11 Western states and Alaska. In Nevada, that activity supports more than 1,800 jobs.

“If Pendley gets to enact his view of the world, Nevada actually could lose quite a bit,” said Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League.

While senators who oppose a nominee will often work to slow down his or her confirmation, Democrats from Western states who plan to vote against Pendley say they are eager for his record to receive more attention.

“Now that President Trump has submitted his nomination, it is critical for Mr. Pendley to finally step into the sunlight and give the U.S. Senate and the public an opportunity to explain his record,” Rosen and eight other Senate Democrats wrote in a letter to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and ranking member Joe Manchin III, D-W.V.

Several Senate Democrats, including Manchin, who is generally seen as the most moderate Democrat in the chamber, have said they’ll vote against his confirmation. Cortez Masto spokeswoman Lauren Wodarski declined to say how Nevada’s senior senator planned to vote, but she said her boss “has concerns about his numerous controversial political opinions and actions taken in his acting director capacity.”

Murkowski spokeswoman Tonya Parish said the next step was to schedule a confirmation hearing, which would be followed by a committee confirmation vote before the full Senate considers it.

A Democratic staffer for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, hasn’t sent the committee the financial disclosure forms, written questionnaire and other paperwork it needs to schedule a confirmation hearing.

Most of Nevada’s House delegation has been relatively quiet on the nomination, though Democratic U.S. Rep. Dina Titus said Pendley’s nomination is “a clear threat to our public lands” and urged senators to vote against his confirmation.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Susie Lee, a Democrat, declined to comment because the Senate handles confirmations. U.S. Reps. Steven Horsford, a Democrat, and Mark Amodei, a Republican, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Even if Democrats don’t have the votes to block Pendley’s nomination, environmental advocates say there could be value in airing his views.

“There might not be enough votes to oppose the confirmation,” Maggi said. “But it’s an opportunity to get him on-record, what his motivations are, what his values are, and to show that he’s out of step with Nevadans and, I think, most Americans.”

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler is a national correspondent for States Newsroom.