The appointment of William Perry Pendley to head up the federal Bureau of Land Management has been met with near sky-is-falling panic among the conservation communities. And, indeed, there is reason for concern – especially in states like Montana, where the agency oversees some 8 million acres of land.

Pendley has a long record of advocating extensive development of public lands in favor of industries like mining, ranching and oil and gas drilling. He has openly advocated for ranchers and other public lands users in disputes with the federal government and written about these disputes extensively.

But we’ve seen this movie before.

James G. Watt advocated similar development philosophies when he was appointed to be Interior secretary in the early 1980s by then-President Ronald Reagan. Though the Reagan administration at one point proposed selling public lands as a way to reduce the national debt, no such sale took place.

Conservationists should take at least some comfort in the fact that no presidential administration can unilaterally decide to sell off public lands wholesale or even transfer their management to the states, as many have advocated. Such measures would require congressional action. And even in these strange times, it would be very difficult to get such a proposal through Congress.

Still, environmental activists will be wise to stay vigilant.

BLM policies can be shifted by the administration away from conservation and in favor of industry as we saw with Montana’s own Ryan Zinke, who as the first Trump Interior secretary reduced the size of national monuments in Utah and opened unprotected areas to oil and gas development.

Support for any actions like those is scarce. What members of the Trump administration and others who advocate for the sale or extensive development of public land don’t get is how people of all stripes value these shared resources. In Europe, centuries of development have left little or no publicly owned lands. The idea of land open to the public for hunting, fishing, hiking, birdwatching, berry picking, etc., is alien in the Old World. As Americans we take those privileges for granted, and those willing to give them up – all or even in part – are few.

Pendley’s actions should be watched closely – and resisted when they run counter to our shared interests in preserving our public lands.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Don Beeman, community member
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Sarabeth Rees, community member
  • David Swingle, community member

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