For 424 days, William Perry-Pendley held the power of director within the Bureau of Land Management. But on Sept. 25, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana Great Falls Division found he had been holding that power illegally, given he wasn't Senate-confirmed. Cooper McKim spoke with Wyoming-native Pendley about what happened, his efforts to return to his role, and what he's doing now.
William Perry Pendley: The point is Cooper, I have to say: I've never been acting director. I have been Deputy Director of policy and programs since July 15, 2019, when I took the job. And what that means is that I'm the political appointee at the Bureau of Land Management, I report to the [Interior] Secretary through the Assistant Secretary. But as you probably realize, Congress is in charge of our federal lands, our public lands; Congress delegates its power to the Secretary and then [the] Secretary delegates his power to the bureau heads. And one of the powers that I was delegated was the power to, "exercise the authority of the director." At the end of the day, candidly, as you realize, and everybody realizes, somebody's got to sign the paperwork.
And it's delegated to a director, and so I "exercise the authority of the director." And what the judge said was that delegation was illegal. The Secretary couldn't do it. Now bear in mind, the Department of the Interior has done this 180 times since 2000. So, what the judge said, is, 'No, I still don't like it.' And we think our solicitor says publicly, 'It's outrageous. It fundamentally misinterprets the law unreasonably attempts to upend decades of practice spanning multiple presidential administrations from both parties, nevertheless, we're going to comply with a court order.' We're appealing the case; we think it'll be overturned. So, we're going to press on, I'm going to do my job. I see these headlines in these newspaper stories saying I've been ousted; I have not been ousted. I'm still at my desk, I have the confidence of the President of the United States, I have the confidence of the Secretary. And my task is to fulfill the President's commitment to the American people to have jobs, to have conservation, and to increase recreation on our public lands.
Cooper McKim: But for now, the way you see it is that you're still effectively in charge?
WP: I'm still Deputy Director for policy and programs doing what the Deputy Director for policy and programs does. And that's: provide leadership in managing the Bureau of Land Management, consistent with the directives I get from the Secretary. But as I'll repeat again, Cooper, if there's something that needs action by the director of the Bureau of Land Management, I won't be doing that. The judge said I can't do that. And so, I won't be doing that.
CM: Now, all of these folks, including 60 environmental groups, and [Montana] Governor [Steve] Bullock, obviously are calling for your decisions to be nixed. And the BLM said you took 'no relevant acts' as chief. So, what are your thoughts on that?
WP: Well, there you have a two-part question. I'll answer the second part. And so what was it exactly that I did? And what did the bureau do? And so, what we did in Montana, we had two [resource management] plans (RMPs). One, the Missoula plan, one was the Lewistown plan, covering millions of acres. But essentially, these RMPs go back to the 1980s and the 1990s - 30 years ago. And Montana is not the same state it was 30 years ago. So we had to update these plans, and so we updated these plans. And we worked with the state, private people, local people, we got the plans updated. And our state director in Montana, John Mehlhoff, he signed the final plan. And then the Governor came in and said, 'Director Mehlhoff, I say, I think your plans are inconsistent with my state plans.' So, John Mehlhoff, the state director, sat down with those plans. He made some changes in the final record of decision consistent with what the Governor wanted. But some of me [sic] said, 'you know, Governor, I really don't think this is inconsistent with what you want.
So, you know, I'm not going to change that part.' And then he sent the governor a letter and he said, 'Governor, here's my final decision.' This is John Mehlhoff, state director of Montana. 'And, if you don't like it, you can appeal.' [The] Governor never appealed. He sent us a lovely letter [that] said, 'Thank you very much, appreciate you're working with us,' and so forth. And then all of a sudden the Governor files a lawsuit. The Governor files a lawsuit and said 'I got hurt because Pendley was there.' Well, the problem for the Governor and the argument we're making in court is that Pendley didn't have anything to do with this. And I, frankly, it's beyond me why in the world the Governor is trying to stop these resource management plans, which allow for all these wonderful activities in Montana. But I'm optimistic that we'll be quite successful in court, these resource management plans will go forward and Montanans will benefit.
CM: Usually, it's us [reporters] bothering you for an interview. I was curious why you wanted to make yourself available and what else is important for you to mention to the Wyoming public?
WP: So, I've been eager to talk to the media to get to the public about the wonderful work that we're doing in the Trump administration: the President's commitment to growing the economy, building jobs, recovering from this pandemic, and at the same time, conserving our lands, and increasing recreational opportunities for the public. And also, candidly, Cooper, [to] tell you the truth the media has not yet quite figured out how to write about this litigation that's ongoing right now. And I'm eager to make sure they get it right. I have not been ousted from my job. This thought that if you went down the hall to my office, I wouldn't be there, the only reason I'm not there is [because] I'm in Casper. That desk is still occupied: Deputy Director policy and programs doing what the President wants and the secretary wants to accomplish.
CM: Well, I think we can leave it there. So thanks for joining me, deputy director.
WP: Of course! You bet. Good to talk to you, Cooper.
Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at firstname.lastname@example.org.