I want you to consider three recent developments at the Department of the Interior, and ask what direction you think they point.
1. BLM’s New ‘Zealot’
I’m unsure of how to put this politely, so this is how The Washington Post described William Perry Pendley’s appointment:
“Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last month tapped William Perry Pendley, an anti-government zealot who has not been Senate-approved for any position, to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees one-tenth of the nation’s land.”
Pendley is an outspoken advocate for the mass sell-off of public land, and until this appointment, was widely considered a fringe voice—imagine if Cliven Bundy was a lawyer, instead of a rancher. Opinions range from Pendley being “unfit” to lead the BLM, to also being “unqualified.” Rather than put such a character in front of the Senate for a legally-mandated confirmation hearing, Bernhardt instead appointed Pendley to be only an acting director. Jon Tester, a senator from Montana called this arrangement, “An end run around the Senate’s responsibility to oversee and confirm federal leadership positions.”
Wednesday, Pendley announced that he’d recuse himself from matters related to 57 businesses, local governments, and private individuals he’s represented in the past. “I understand that preserving a culture of ethical compliance within the BLM begins with me,” he wrote in an email to staff announcing the 17-page list of interest groups he says he intends to avoid working with for the next two years.
The sincerity of that effort seems laughable, given Bernhardt’s own troubled past with honoring such recusals, and the fact that Pendley has already taken official action as acting director to benefit clients he may have still represented at the time.
2. Moving BLM Management to Colorado
The Trump administration is trying to spin its forced relocation of BLM headquarters from Washington D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado, as an attempt to relocate the agency closer to the western lands it’s charged with managing. But no one, not even top administration personel appear to believe that.
“Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” began acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, during a private speech to GOP donors in August. “I know that because a lot of them work for me. And I’ve tried. And you can’t do it. But simply saying to the people, you know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven and move you out into the real part of the country, and they quit. What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”
As for the rhetoric around moving BLM staff closer to the western lands they’re responsible for: 97 percent of the BLM’s 10,000 staff already live in the regions where the land they manage is located. Only a couple hundred agency employees are based in Washington, where their jobs are to interface with the rest of the federal government. Forcing those employees to relocate simply appears to be an effort to remove institutional knowledge from the BLM, and hide its decision making process from oversight.
“This plan is so radical that we question whether it was studied or analyzed by non-political budget analysts or organizational experts and whether career BLM senior management were involved or consulted,” wrote a group of retired BLM employees in an open letter to the Senate in August. “The breakup of the Washington office structure will promote parochial, local interests, over the national interests in the management of public lands.”
And all that was before it was discovered that the BLM will share its new office space with Chevron and other oil industry businesses.
3. DOI’s New Solicitor General
At the Department of the Interior, it’s the Solicitor’s job to advise and represent the Secretary of the Interior in legal matters and oversee the department’s ethical investigations and its Freedom of Information Act disclosures, among other duties. The Senate just confirmed Daniel Jorjani to the position, with a vote that mostly followed party lines.
Jorjani, who came to DOI after working for both the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation, faced allegations of perjury, during Senate testimony in May, over his role in restricting FOIA disclosures at the agency. According to the Western Values Project, a public lands advocacy group, Jorjani has led efforts at DOI to restrict FOIA transparency, slowing and potentially withholding the release of documents the public requests, shifting the process from a governmental function to a political one.
Jorjani is also responsible for writing the legal opinion that reversed a departmental ruling and renewed copper and nickel mining leases for a Chilean company on the outskirts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As a fun aside, the owners of that mining company rent a home to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in Washington D.C.
In 2018, Jorjani wrote an email to DOI staff stating, “At the end of the day our job is to protect the Secretary [of the Interior].”
In remarks from the floor of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said, “If Mr. Jorjani is confirmed, the person who will be in charge of ethics at the Interior Department told colleagues his job was to protect a crook.”
So, the largest public land management agency is now led by an anti-public land zealot who’s already mixing the business of his agency with that of his former clients. That agency’s offices are being relocated to a building shared with oil companies. And, the person charged with oversight of all this is now a political operative poached from the oil industry. And all that is taking place against the backdrop of scandal-plagued Interior Secretary, who presided over the rollback of the Endangered Species Act. Where does all this point?
Look at what’s already happening to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There, reduced ESA protections for the polar bear, what looks like deliberate suppression of the public’s voice, and an usurpation of the democratic process combined to allow BLM to open the formerly-protected wilderness to drilling for the first time. Could something like this happen to public lands near you?