When William Pendley became acting head of the Bureau of Land Management without congressional approval this summer, watchdogs of right-wing movements expressed concern over some of his more fringe views. An op-ed Pendley authored this month is giving them new reason to worry.
Pendley has spent a long career arguing against federal land and environmental protections—a stance that makes him an unlikely guardian of the country’s public lands. This month he published an op-ed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. calling on BLM employees to maintain “deference” to local sheriffs. The message appears to borrow language from a cluster of fringe-right movements that Pendley has previously backed. That could mean trouble for Pendley’s own federal agents, experts say.
The op-ed could appeal to the so-called “Patriot” movement, a loose collection of far-right ideologies, said Lindsay Schubiner, a program director at Western States Center.
“Pendley’s statement that federal BLM agents should defer to local law enforcement not only undermines his own staff, but potentially puts them in danger,” Schubiner told The Daily Beast. “This rhetoric risks emboldening the Patriot movement, which already sees BLM agents as their enemy.”
Pendley’s op-ed described local sheriffs as the top brass of law enforcement.
“[T]he bureau is reaching out to local sheriffs to ensure that Rangers recognize that, although local law enforcement bears primary responsibility for enforcing state and federal law, Rangers are there to assist—lending their expertise to better local communities,” Pendley wrote. “Rangers, therefore, partner with local law enforcement, while recognizing that counties are a governmental-arm of sovereign states. Maintaining that deference is essential to making BLM a truly productive and valued partner to Western communities.”
The BLM did not immediately return a request for comment.
The issue is more than just an inter-agency dispute. For decades, a coalition of ranchers, right-wingers, and private industries have rallied against federal land ownership in western states.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, members of the “Sagebrush Rebellion” objected to conservation laws that kept certain wilderness areas under federal control. Despite the group’s anti-government posturing, they still wrangled significant support from politicians, including then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. Today, Pendley uses the Twitter handle @Sagebrush_Rebel, and has written a book of the same title.
Although the pro-privatization movement was right-wing even in the 80s, it has since drifted further right, observers have noted. In the 2010s, it became increasingly entangled with the Patriot movement.
“The barriers are down,” the High Country News wrote in 2016 of increasing crossover between Sagebrush types and militant members of the Patriot movement. “Now, a single event like Recapture, the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff or the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, broadcast globally and instantly via social media, draws supporters from across the extreme right, from other Sagebrush Rebels to pro-gun militiamen to local politicians who have no qualms about standing cheek-by-jowl with people aiming rifles at federal agents.”
These circles often hold local sheriffs in high regard. Police who join the far-right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, for instance, believe sheriffs are the highest level of the law. It’s a conspiratorial view that previously appeared with the white supremacist group the Posse Comitatus, and has also found footing with the tax-protest movement, the militia movement, and with “sovereign citizens,” a group that falsely believes themselves to be liberated from the federal government and most laws.
John Freemuth, the Cecil D. Andrus endowed chair for environment and public lands at Boise State University told the energy publication E&E News that Pendley’s comments would appeal to some of this far-right fringe.
“He revved up the crazies with that statement,” Freemuth said. “Now some nut job could confront [BLM rangers] with, ‘Well, your boss said you're subservient.’”
Chain-of-command disputes in land issues have previously led to bloodshed in western states, including during the 2016 standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon. During the 40-day siege, federal agents squared off with a group of militia and sovereign citizen types, culminating in the shooting death of a rancher by federal agents. Members of that skirmish had also participated in a 2014 standoff with BLM agents, which Pendley described as an “overreaction” by the agency he now leads. (Sovereign citizens are responsible for a number of police shootings in their own right.)
Pendley’s post, which was unapproved by Congress, was supposed to end Sept. 30, but received a last-minute extension (also unapproved by Congress) allowing him to continue into January. Even before the extension, BLM veterans warned that Pendley could shake up the agency in a matter of days.
“Someone like the acting director of the BLM can make scores of decisions over the course of the week: How fast to do this, how slow to walk that, what position to take on this particular issue, or what to tell the Justice Department about how to defend a particular case,” John Leshy, a former Interior Department lawyer told E&E News in early August.
Dean Bibles, a BLM veteran who worked at the agency for more than 30 years told E&E news that while Pendley worked at the Department of the Interior, he’d hosted conferences where he allowed oil and gas industry executives to develop regulations.
“I just said, ‘William, this is not legal. You don't develop regulations with the people you are dealing with,’” Bibles recalled. “He said, ‘Well, if you're uncomfortable you don't have to stay.’ And I said, ‘I am more than uncomfortable,’ and I left.”
Previously, Pendley was president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which calls on the federal government to sell off public lands. His close ties with oil companies and the mining industry have led him to recuse himself from BLM matters relating to almost 60 of his former clients. (The recusal is not enough, the Union of Concerned Scientists argued last month.)
Schubiner noted that the Patriot movement’s emphasis on local sheriffs isn’t just a libertarian preference for small government; it can also work to kneecap law enforcement that doesn’t align with the movement’s views.
“The Patriot movement claims to support county sheriffs, but only those who abide by its pseudo-constitutional proclamations,” she said. “So when you have the head of the BLM essentially saying that his agents should be subordinate to county sheriffs, what he’s doing is allowing rogue sheriffs and the broader Patriot movement to hold the Constitution up with one hand while crushing it with the other.”