Interior Secretary David Bernhardt hit the ground running on the first working day of the new year Thursday.
Bernhardt, who grew up in Garfield County, arranged to have doughnuts and coffee provided to protesters who appeared Thursday morning outside 760 Horizon Drive as the Bureau of Land Management began operating out of its new national headquarters there.
Also that morning, he extended the appointment of the acting director of the BLM, William Perry Pendley, who was one major focus of the ire of the several dozen people who showed up Thursday to wave signs and voice their grievances with the media.
Cody Perry, who organized the rally, told participants the mission of the BLM is to manage public lands in a balanced fashion.
“So we don’t appreciate William Perry Pendley, an anti-public-lands advocate, (being) at the helm of an agency that belongs to us,” he yelled, evoking cheers from the crowd.
Though Cody Perry didn’t yet know it, Bernhardt on Thursday morning had signed an order extending until April 3 Pendley’s appointment as acting director of the BLM.
Pendley is deputy director of policy and programs at the BLM. Bernhardt first put in him in temporary charge of the agency in July and previously had extended that appointment once, meaning it was set to expire this week absent further action.
Pendley’s tenure leading the agency has made him a lightning rod for controversy, largely for positions he espoused prior to joining the BLM, including in support of selling public lands.
Critics of the BLM’s relocation of its national headquarters to Grand Junction likewise have attacked him for his efforts overseeing that move.
Pendley was expected to arrive at the Grand Junction headquarters later Thursday and wasn’t available for comment. He has said that his past positions on public lands are irrelevant to his current job, in which he takes his orders from the Trump administration, which among other things opposes wholesale disposal of public lands.
Earlier this week, 91 conservation and other groups wrote to Bernhardt to ask that Pendley resign or be removed from his position. Among other things, they questioned the propriety of Bernhardt appointing Pendley as a deputy director “exercising the authority of” the director.” They said such action is intended for use during times of presidential transition, and Pendley wasn’t appointed through the recognized practice under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act letting presidents appoint acting directors for up to 210 days.
The order Bernhardt issued Thursday, applying to Pendley and several other officials, says it is in compliance with that act, and also says the order “is intended to ensure uninterrupted management and execution of the duties of these vacant non-career positions during the Presidential transition pending Senate-confirmation of new non-career officials.”
President Trump is now about three years into his four-year term. He has yet to nominate a BLM director.
Responding to the conservation groups’ letter to Bernhardt earlier this week, the Interior Department said that Pendley “brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Department and is committed to carrying out the Administration’s priorities for the betterment of the American people.”
Some 20 conservation groups also have written to U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members to oppose having Pendley head the BLM.
“Mr. Pendley is clearly unfit to lead the BLM in any capacity, either acting or Senate-confirmed,” the groups said.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance trade association, said Thursday, “The extreme rhetoric by these groups committed to the Keep-It-in-the-Ground agenda certainly shows they’re triggered. These advocates feel threatened by having leadership at Interior and BLM that enables responsible, productive uses of public lands, and doesn’t subscribe to locking away working landscapes in the West and killing jobs on the West Slope and elsewhere.”
While upset over the state of affairs at the BLM, Cody Perry was touched Thursday by Bernhardt’s provision of food and drinks for the protesters, something that BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said Bernhardt paid for out of his own pocket.
“That’s pretty nice. I appreciate that,” Perry said of Bernhardt’s gesture.
He said Bernhardt, being from western Colorado, is no stranger to the contentious issues that people feel strongly about when it comes to public lands. While Perry recognizes the potential for some positives when it comes to the BLM’s headquarters relocation to Grand Junction, such as its role in helping diversify the local economy, he believes the move has been handled in a way that lacks transparency and is resulting in the agency losing people with institutional knowledge because of the difficulty of making the move. Perry fears that the impacts of the move on all the public lands the BLM manages across the nation will overshadow what benefits it brings to Grand Junction and western Colorado.
Lee Gelatt, who joined Thursday’s protest, said he’s afraid the move will diminish the power of the BLM.
“They want to raise the power of oil and gas and diminish the recreational interests,” he said.
He added, “I want Pendley to know that we love our public lands. We’re not going to stand for his shenanigans.”
Roy Farber, who also participated in the protest, is likewise distrustful of Pendley, but is glad the BLM’s national headquarters are now in Grand Junction.
“They are in our yard now,” he said of national-level BLM officials.
Farber said Pendley has said he won’t be influenced by his past views, “and I want to hold him to that.”
Elijah Waters, manager of the BLM’s Gunnison Field Office and currently acting manager for the agency’s northwest Colorado district, was at the new headquarters Thursday to help with the headquarters opening and said he’s excited about it being based in Colorado.
He believes it will be benefit the state by helping headquarters staff “understand the issues and challenges we are dealing with.”