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Who Will Lead The Bureau Of Land Managment Turns Into Fierce Fight


President Trump nominated a man named William Perry Pendley to lead the Bureau of Land Management. It's a big job. That agency controls what goes on on about 10% of all the land in this country. And now a couple of Republican senators in Western states may be sweating Pendley's confirmation hearing. NPR's Kirk Siegler explains what's going on.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Before arriving at the Bureau of Land Management a year ago, acting Director Pendley spent much of his career as a property rights attorney fighting the agency he now leads. It's never been clear whether even the GOP-controlled Senate would confirm him, and Democrats are eager to get vulnerable Republicans on the record about a nominee who as recently as 2016 suggested that federal public land be turned over to states or private entities.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Montana for sale? Donald Trump...

SIEGLER: This new ad by environmentalists tries to align Pendley with Montana's Republican Senator Steve Daines. Daines sits on the Senate committee that would take up the Pendley nomination and is in a tight reelection bid against that state's governor.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Tell Steve Daines our public plans are not for sale. Stop Pendley.

SIEGLER: Daines hasn't said how he'd vote, neither has fellow committee Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado. He's trying to fend off a challenge from his state's former governor John Hickenlooper. The senators' offices did not make them available for interviews, though the two have said they plan to ask tough questions of Pendley if there's a hearing. A Daine spokeswoman did call that attack ad an attempt to distract from his work getting a huge conservation bill signed last week that puts billions of dollars toward public lands protections. Senator Gardner was also seen as key in the passage of that Great American Outdoors Act.

ROB SALDIN: That was a big political win for those two in particular.

SIEGLER: Rob Saldin is a political scientist at the University of Montana.

SALDIN: And they'd like to be able to bask in the glow of that for a while, ideally all the way through Election Day. And now this Pendley nomination risks overshadowing that.

SIEGLER: Saldin says Daines and Gardner are in a bind because no Western politician can afford to be portrayed as anti-public land. But the two men also can't risk the ridicule of President Trump if they don't support Pendley. Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell sits on the committee with Gardner and Daines.

MARIA CANTWELL: You can't hide just behind the Great American Outdoor Act.

SIEGLER: Cantwell says the American public has the right to know more about who is in charge of their land. Pendley is especially relevant in the West, where the U.S. government owns a lot of the vast open spaces. And here, the decisions of the Bureau of Land Management director can have a lot more direct effect on people's daily lives than the president.

CANTWELL: Just because members of Congress don't want to be put on the hot seat about his philosophy that is out of step with the mainstream of the public - but yet if, you know, they can push him through later after the election is very troubling.

SIEGLER: For his part, William Perry Pendley has maintained his character is being unfairly maligned. In an interview earlier this year, he insisted he has no plans to transfer or sell off federal public land even though that's still in the official GOP party platform.


WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: I've made it very, very clear, the president of the United States has made it clear, the secretary of the interior's made it clear that the United States government will not engage in the wholesale transfer or disposal of the public lands.

SIEGLER: A confirmation hearing has yet to be scheduled. But regardless, Pendley's future at the Bureau of Land Management remains uncertain. Two federal lawsuits have been filed accusing the administration of keeping him in an acting role there far longer than what's legal under federal law.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.


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