POLITICS
07/01/2020 20:24 EDT

Trump’s Pick For Public Lands Chief Puts Endangered GOP Senators In A Bind

Either Cory Gardner and Steve Daines back an anti-environment extremist and outrage public land advocates, or they oppose him and face Trump's wrath.

President Donald Trump just put two of his favorite Senate allies in a tough spot. 

Late Tuesday, Trump formally nominated William Perry Pendley, a conservative lawyer with extreme anti-environmental views and a long history of advocating for the sale of federal lands, to serve as director of the Bureau of Land Management ― an agency that manages 245 million acres, more than one-third of all federal land. 

The timing of the move is baffling. Pendley has served as the bureau’s acting director since last July, thanks to a series of questionable ― some say illegal ― extensions by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Pendley could have remained in that role indefinitely, but Trump instead opted on the cusp of the 2020 elections to kickstart the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation process that Pendley has so far avoided.

That presumably will confront Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Steve Daines (Mont.) ― two close Trump allies facing tough reelection bids who recently scored rare points with the conservation community ― with a dilemma: vote to confirm Pendley, which would surely enrage public land advocates, or oppose the nominee and face the wrath of Trump.

Backing Pendley would undercut if not entirely spoil the win Gardner and Daines scored with environmental and outdoor sporting groups this month. The two played a key role in championing a sweeping public lands package through the Senate.

The legislation, called the Great American Outdoors Act, has been hailed as the most important conservation bill in a generation. It sets aside $9.5 billion to address the ballooning maintenance backlog at national parks and provides full, permanent funding for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program established in 1964 to protect natural areas and water resources. The House is expected to pass the bill this month, and Trump has promised to sign it into law.

Michael Ciaglo via Getty Images
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) joined President Donald Trump on stage during a Keep America Great rally in February in Colorado Springs. With Gardner facing a tough reelection bid this year, Trump didn't do him any favors this week by nominating an extreme anti-environmentalist to head the Bureau of Land Management.

Daines and Gardner, neither of whom have records that environmentalists consider strong, are credited with convincing the president to reverse his stance on the fund after years of trying to gut it

But Land Tawney, president of the Montana-based nonprofit Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, told HuffPost that Pendley’s nomination “poisons the well.” 

“I can’t for the life of me figure out why the administration would nominate Pendley now after he has been acting director for nearly a year,” he said via email. ”The good work by Senators Daines and Gardner to pass the Great American Outdoors Act in such bipartisan fashion will be clouded by the nomination of a sworn enemy to public lands. The people of Montana and Colorado are definitely watching.” 

Daines signaled in November that he’d back Pendley for the BLM director post, as E&E News reported. Asked Wednesday if Daines still plans to support Pendley, a spokeswoman declined to comment. 

Gardner has managed to avoid taking a stand on the controversial public lands chief. During a Wednesday interview with Colorado Public Radio, he was asked if Pendley’s past positions and statements, including advocating for the sale of public land and dismissing climate change activists as “kooks,” should disqualify him from leading the federal agency. 

“That’s exactly why we’re going to have a hearing and some very tough questions for Mr. Pendley,” Gardner said.

“We haven’t even had the hearing yet,” he said when pressed again. “So I look forward to this investigative process.”

Zach Gibson via Getty Images
The dilemma facing Gardner (left) over Trump's nomination of William Perry Pendley is shared by Sen. Steve Daines (right), a Montana Republican in a challenging reelection fight.

Pendley, whose anti-environmental record is well-documented, is unlikely to answer tough questions from senators. He has repeatedly dismissed concerns about his stance on federal lands and claimed his personal views and past statements ― including describing climate science as “junk science” and comparing immigrants to a “cancer” ― are “irrelevant” to leading the bureau. 

A native of Wyoming, Pendley is the former longtime president of Mountain States Legal Foundation, a right-wing nonprofit that has pushed for the government to sell off millions of federal acres. His first stint in government was in the early 1980s under James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s anti-environmentalist Interior chief.

Pendley has been described as Watt’s “ideological twin.” He has said the Endangered Species Act seeks “to kill or prevent anybody from making a living on federal land,” railed against environmental “terrorists” and “eco-fascists,” and published anti-environmental pieces in a fringe magazine of the late cult leader, convicted fraudster and paranoid conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche. 

AP Photo/Matthew Brown
At a conference for journalists last year in Fort Collins, Colorado, Pendley said his personal views are "irrelevant" to the job of running the Bureau of Land Management.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, announced Wednesday that he will vote against Pendley, citing several of the nominee’s past statements.

“His past comments calling the Endangered Species Act ‘a joke,’ comparing global warming to the existence of unicorns and arguing the federal government should sell off its public lands are disqualifying,” Manchin said in a statement to Politico. “At this moment in our nation’s history, the Bureau of Land Management and every agency need leaders who are willing to listen and lead with compassion. Mr. Pendley’s comments about the Black Lives Matter movement make it clear he is not fit to do so.”

E&E Newstook note this week on a 2017 op-ed in the Washington Examiner in which Pendley argued that the Black Lives Matter movement is built on a “terrible lie — a lie the mainstream media perpetrated, that cowardly politicians, fearful of saying ‘all lives matter,’ emboldened.”

Manchin’s opposition means support from Republicans like Gardner and Daines will prove all the more crucial in the closely divided Senate to Pendley winning confirmation, if and when the chamber takes up his nomination.

Two former BLM directors told E&E News that they view the nomination as “strictly a political move” and “nothing more than political theater and a play to [Trump’s] base.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who closely tracks presidential nominations, told HuffPost that Pendley’s nomination does not make political sense for the GOP effort to retain its Senate majority, given the awkward position it puts Daines and Gardner in. 

“It’s the fox in the henhouse,” Tobias said of Pendley, adding that Trump administration officials must know “he’s a lightning rod for people in the West.”