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President Donald Trump’s nomination of William Pendley as director of the Bureau of Land Management has become a flashpoint in Montana’s upcoming election.

The Senate confirmation process could put Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who is facing a competitive reelection bid against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, in a difficult position as he works to emphasize his conservation record while also supporting the White House.

Democrats, including Bullock, have been using Pendley’s nomination to highlight their conservation work and to criticize their opponents for not standing up to protect public lands.

Bullock sued the BLM and Pendley on Monday, arguing that it’s against federal law for him to continue serving as acting director while his confirmation for director is pending before the Senate.

“Americans and Montanans deserve a Bureau of Land Management director who values the public’s role in managing our public lands,” Bullock said in a statement.

Bullock has also called on Daines, who has previously voiced some support for Pendley, to vote against his confirmation.

When asked whether Daines would vote for or against Pendley, his spokesperson Katie Schoettler called the focus on Pendley “an election year, political stunt.”

Pendley has served as the BLM’s acting director for about a year. Trump’s nomination in late June kicked off the formal Senate confirmation process, which includes consideration by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Daines is a member.

The committee’s consideration of Pendley has yet to be scheduled.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt appointed Pendley as the BLM’s acting director last summer. Bernhardt has since repeatedly extended Pendley’s tenure.

In officially appointing Pendley as the BLM director, the White House said he has worked to increase recreational opportunities on public lands, raised awareness about the impacts of wild horses and burros and highlighted the BLM’s multiple-use mission.

Several conservation groups and Democratic lawmakers have opposed Pendley, maintaining he has supported the sale of public lands and lobbied for the oil and gas industry.

Pendley’s nomination follows Senate passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which provides $9.5 billion to address the maintenance backlog on public lands and allocates $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that pays for projects like city parks and fishing access sites.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Daines both voted for the Great American Outdoors Act.

The House is expected to pass the bill on Wednesday. At Daines’ urging, Trump has said he will sign it into law.

Conservation groups have recognized Tester and Daines for backing the Great American Outdoors Act, adding, however, that Daines could lose their support if he votes to confirm Pendley as BLM director.

Montana Conservation Voters urged him not to confirm Pendley in a recent news release.

“If Sen. Daines wants to be a conservation champion as he claims to be, he will listen carefully to the concerns Montanans have raised about Mr. Pendley’s long record of support for selling off our public lands and overturning Montana’s stream access law,” deputy directory Whitney Tawney said.

Kayje Booker, with the Montana Wilderness Association, said Pendley is the wrong person to serve as BLM director and called on Daines to vote against him.

“As a member of the committee that will take the first vote to confirm Pendley, Sen. Steve Daines now has a choice,” Booker said in a statement. “He can either support his constituents and our outdoor way of life, or he can vote in support of a man and an ideology that pose a monumental threat to us and America’s public land.”

Tester, who has repeatedly denounced Pendley, also drew a connection between Pendley and the Great American Outdoors Act.

“There’s $900 million a year in the Land and Water Conservation Fund that is to be managed, in part, by the BLM director, and if you’ve got a director that does not believe in public lands, that money is not going to be managed,” Tester said in a press call on Tuesday. “It’s going to be a waste of taxpayer dollars. It’s not going to do the kind of good for public lands and habitat and public access that we need.”

However, Schoettler, Daines’ spokesperson, said the emphasis on Pendley is a “diversion to take away from what is happening tomorrow as the House of Representatives will be voting on one of the greatest conservation wins in 50 years, the Great American Outdoors Act.”

Tester joined several other senators on Tuesday in urging the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to consider Pendley’s nomination quickly, so he can be held accountable for what they said is “his record of undermining our public lands, clean water and jobs that rely on both.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, a Democrat running for governor, has also opposed Pendley. In recent weeks, he has highlighted his long-term advocacy for public lands and released a plan to bolster existing public access programs and defend against efforts to limit funding and oversight.

Cooney has called on his opponent, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, to speak out against Pendley.

Gianforte said in an interview on Tuesday that he has worked to keep public lands in public hands and will continue to do so. If elected as governor, he said he would strive to increase access to public lands for recreation and would prioritize local voices in his decision-making.

When asked whether he supports Pendley, Gianforte said the decision to confirm him rests with the Senate.

“I will say that having worked with Sonny Perdue (in the U.S. Department of Agriculture), with Dave Bernhardt (in the U.S. Department of the Interior), I have been very pleased with the Trump administration appointments and their responsiveness to Montana issues,” Gianforte said. “I haven’t had the opportunity to work directly with Mr. Pendley, but again, he will report up into Dave Bernhardt who has taken a special interest in Montana.”

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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