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Bureau Of Land Management's Acting Director Faces Controversy


This next story involves 250 million acres of land. That's how much public land is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. One way to think of 250 million acres is, that's roughly equal to the entire land area of Texas, plus California. This week, the Trump administration installed an acting director to supervise all that land. He is a man who has called for transferring public lands to states or selling them to private industry. NPR's Kirk Siegler has more.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: William Perry Pendley served under President Reagan's controversial Interior Secretary James Watt. He then built his career as an attorney at the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation in Colorado, where he challenged the validity of the Endangered Species Act and represented oil and gas interests in public lands disputes. His Twitter handle is Sagebrush Rebel, a nod to what President Reagan once called himself. But the Sagebrush Rebellion is also associated with extremists like Cliven Bundy, whose family led armed occupations over control of federal public land. Pendley has written articles sympathetic to that movement, and he's argued that federal government shouldn't own most public land.

JEFF RUCH: We've likened it to putting an arsonist in charge of the city fire department.

SIEGLER: Jeff Ruch is with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that represents whistleblowers inside federal agencies.

RUCH: The whole mission of the BLM is to manage these lands. And he's trying to basically get them out of this business, which seems to be quite a departure, even under Trump.

SIEGLER: The Interior Department did not make Pendley available for an interview, but in an emailed statement, a spokesperson said the Trump administration opposes the wholesale transfer of public lands and said the BLM's multiple use management mission isn't changing. Former agency officials are speaking out. Salt Lake City attorney Patrick Shea headed the BLM during the Clinton administration. He says while everyone is distracted by the president's incendiary tweets, the administration is quietly putting acting officials, like Pendley, in charge of agencies, which gets around Senate confirmation.

PATRICK SHEA: I think it is the beginning step of dissolving the agency to the point that it will simply disappear.

SIEGLER: At the Department of Interior alone, there are also acting directors at the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, and there's an acting head of the BLM's law enforcement arm. But Pendley's appointment is welcome news in some corners of the rural West where traditional industries such as logging, mining and ranching on BLM lands are drying up. Bruce Adams is a commissioner and rancher in remote San Juan County, Utah. That's where the Trump administration is trying to dramatically shrink the Bears Ears National Monument.

BRUCE ADAMS: We think a strong advocate for agriculture community and for the extractive industry will help fuel the economy and be a good thing for our county.

SIEGLER: And San Juan County, he notes, is one of the poorest in Utah. Meanwhile, environmentalists are planning legal action over the Pendley appointment. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.