BILLINGS — The Trump administration's top steward of public lands has recused himself from work involving dozens of former clients following conflict of interest allegations from lawmakers and environmental advocates, federal officials disclosed Wednesday.
Acting Bureau of Land Management Director William "Perry" Pendley is a former property rights attorney who has argued for selling off public lands and railed against what he has labelled the "tyranny" of the federal government.
Pendley said in a Wednesday email to his staff obtained by The Associated Press that he wanted to set an example for the agency's 9,000 employees by avoiding the potential conflicts.
He agreed not to participate in matters involving 57 entities and individuals — from farming and mining organizations to an energy company seeking to drill on land adjacent to Glacier National Park, according to documents released by officials.
"I understand that preserving a culture of ethical compliance within the BLM begins with me," Pendley wrote. "I have also established a rigorous screening process to ensure that I will remain in full compliance."
The recusals are generally effective for two years from the date of his mid-July appointment.
Montana U.S. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester sharply criticized Pendley's past calls to sell off public lands and called his appointment an end-run around the Senate since no confirmation hearings were held. Others in Congress voiced similar concerns about Pendley's record.
The BLM leader said last month that his longtime advocacy for selling public lands was "irrelevant" because his boss, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, opposes the wholesale sale of public lands.
The Trump administration already has moved to weaken some protections for public lands, including easing restrictions on oil and gas exploration. BLM officials last week said the agency was moving its headquarters from Washington to an office building in Colorado that also houses oil and gas organizations, drawing criticism from environmental groups.
Among Pendley's past clients when he ran the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation was Solenex LLC, a Louisiana-based energy company that has been seeking to drill in the remote and mountainous Badger-Two Medicine area of northwestern Montana.
The area is considered sacred to the Blackfoot Tribes of the U.S. and Canada, and Solenex is fighting in court against the Interior Department's attempts to cancel an energy lease that that the company has held for decades.
Tim Preso, an attorney for drilling opponents, said Pendley's recusal in the dispute was overdue.
"This is appropriate," Preso said. "The key thing is that Pendley will apparently not be in a position to get the Interior Department to back out of its promises concerning protection for the Badger-Two Medicine."
The lengthy recusal list touches on some of the BLM's major oversight responsibilities, naming organizations such as the National Mining Association and several state farm bureaus. Agency spokesman Jeff Krauss said that would "not prohibit Mr. Pendley from effectively leading the bureau."
Three southern Utah counties that supported President Donald Trump's downsizing of two sprawling national monuments in the state also appear on the list. He was the attorney representing San Juan, Kane and Garfield counties as they sought to intervene in lawsuits by conservation and tribal groups challenging the president's actions.
Pendley withdrew in January as attorney for two counties that remain involved in one case. The third county, San Juan, withdrew from the legal battle after control of the county commission changed hands in last year's election. The commission is now led by two members of the Navajo Nation who side with the conservation and tribal groups.