In their agony, deep in the death throes of the Trump administration, America’s public lands managers are scrambling to put their final stamp on the worst conservation, environmental and public lands record in our country’s history. At risk are millions of acres of wildlife habitat and pristine recreational areas across America’s West, including the last remaining undeveloped roadless areas in North Dakota.
Two federal agencies manage the bulk of our public lands here in North Dakota — the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The heads of those two agencies are leading the charge to strip away protections which have been in place for decades, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, before Trump leaves office Jan. 20. Their actions are unprecedented and could have horrible long-term consequences.
Today, in the first of two parts of a look at our public lands and how they are being managed, I want to share some information I put together for an article in Dakota Country magazine this month. This article deals with the BLM, whose actions are affecting land across the western U.S. but not much in North Dakota.
In the next day or two, if I can avoid distractions, I’ll talk about the Forest Service and what is going on in North Dakota. Indeed, just today the Trump administration announced the results of a new management plan for the Dakota Prairie Grasslands here in our state, which pretty much opens up the last of our state’s roadless wilderness areas to development — a devastating blow to conservation.
But I want to start my discussion today with Theodore Roosevelt because we can trace the preservation of public lands in America to actions he took during his time in the White House. About 20 years before he became president of the United States, he ventured west to Dakota. In his autobiography published in 1913, five years after he left the White house, he wrote this:
“It was still the Wild West in those days, the Far West, the West of Owen Wister’s stories and Frederic Remington’s drawings, the West of the Indian and the buffalo hunter, the soldier and the cow-puncher. … We knew toil and hardship and hunger and thirst; and we saw men die violent deaths as they worked among the horses and cattle, or fought in evil feuds with one another; but we felt the beat of hardy life in our veins, and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living.”
It was on his Elkhorn Ranch, in the valley of the Little Missouri River in what is now North Dakota, that he formed the conservation ethic that would guide his actions as the 26th president of the United States.
When Roosevelt stepped off the train in the frontier village of Little Missouri, across the river from present day Medora, N.D., in 1883, first to hunt buffalo and then to become a rancher, nobody owned the land in what we call the North Dakota Bad Lands today. It was just there, since the days of the Louisiana Purchase, and anyone who wanted to use it to establish a ranch and graze cattle could just put up a building or two and turn their cattle loose in the river bottom to graze on the lush grass. Ranchers were the original “social distancers,” generally keeping 10 to 12 miles between their spreads.
Twenty years later, Roosevelt used his nearly eight years in the White House, beginning in 1901, to promote our nation’s landscapes and wildlife, establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments on over 230 million acres of public land, most of it west of the Mississippi River.
And 40 years after TR’s time in the White House, President Harry Truman established a federal agency called the Bureau of Land Management to bring some order to the way our federal lands are used for the public good. Today, the BLM (my friend Stephenie out in Montana calls it the “Bureau of Leasing and Mining”) manages 245 million acres of public land, one-tenth of America’s land base, and a subsurface mineral estate of 700 million acres.
North Dakota and South Dakota Field Offices in Dickinson and Belle Fourche manage more than 330,000 acres of land and nearly 6 million acres of subsurface minerals, making the BLM one of the most important federal agencies in the Dakotas.
And all of us who use public lands — the critters for their homes and the humans for recreation or for agriculture — should be very concerned about the shenanigans that have been going on in the agency the last couple of years.
The BLM is a branch of the U.S. Department of Interior, and last year, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt stirred up a lot of controversy by appointing a fellow named William Perry Pendley to head up the agency — sort of. Pendley’s title is Deputy Director for Policy and Planning. That essentially made him acting director of the agency because there is no Director of the BLM — the post has been vacant through the entire Trump administration.
Pendley is a lawyer who has spent his entire career working for the oil and gas and coal industries, so his appointment is controversial — his last job was president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a big-bucks nonprofit funded by the energy industry that advocates for the government to dispose of all federally owned land in the West. Greedy energy companies, especially, would like to get their hands on those millions of acres, some of the most critical wildlife habitat in America, now used mostly by ranchers, as well as hunters, hikers, anglers, birders, campers, canoers and photographers. There’s a lot of coal and oil under those acres.
To have Pendley now in charge of our public lands after all his work with the energy industry is troubling. He has consistently argued, in books he has authored and in public statements, that the BLM land he now manages should all be sold. “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” he wrote in a National Review magazine article in 2016.
Old Teddy rolled over in his grave when he read those words.
Pendley’s tenure at BLM has so troubled wildlife and conservation groups that 91 of them, including the Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club, the Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Dakota Rural Action Black Hills Chapter, Bighorn Audubon Society and The Alaska Wilderness League, among many others, have banded together and sent Secretary Bernhardt a letter asking him to remove Pendley from his post. Bernhardt demurred and kept him on as acting director of the agency.
The groups are troubled because during Pendley’s time at the BLM, there has been a sharp increase in leasing oil and gas prospects on federal lands. In Nevada, for example, instead of holding traditional quarterly lease sales, the BLM began holding monthly lease sales last year. The agency offered nearly 1.8 million acres of land, much of it in big game migration areas or sage grouse habitats, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Finally, after Pendley had spent nearly a year in his temporary position as acting director, President Trump in June formally nominated him to be the agency’s director. But just two months later, the nomination was withdrawn because, given Pendley’s background, it appeared unlikely that the U. S. Senate would confirm him (the agency’s director requires Senate confirmation), and controversial confirmation hearings could damage the president’s re-election efforts.
Pendley, meanwhile, in his role as acting director, has been rewriting BLM land management plans all over the West, opening up federal lands that had previously been off-limits to development, mostly because of threats to wildlife. In Alaska, just last month, Pendley approved conducting seismic tests — loud blasting to search for petroleum deposits — in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But earlier this year, out in Montana, he went too far. Pendley rewrote three management plans, opening up 95 percent of 650,000 acres of previously protected BLM land to mining and drilling.
That ticked off Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a public lands advocate, and he took Pendley to court. In October, a federal judge sided with the Montana governor and threw out the plans, ruling that because Pendley had not been appointed to the position of director and confirmed by the Senate, he didn’t have the authority to change the plans.
“Any exclusive function of the BLM Director performed by Pendley is invalid,” the judge ruled. Conservation groups are hoping that the judge’s decision will reverse 30 other management plan revisions Pendley has overseen across the west. That’s still up in the air.
It doesn’t appear that this court decision has a big impact on the Dakotas — at least for now. Most of the plans affected are in the far Western states.
The North Dakota BLM office has been a busy place for the past few years, although the pace has slowed this year. The BLM office in Dickinson is responsible for issuing oil drilling permits on all federal land in North Dakota, not just on land it manages, but also on the million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands, much of which is in the Bakken Boom region of the state, and on lands held in trust for the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The reservation is ground zero for the Bakken Boom.
The BLM office was so busy back in 2013 that the oil industry offered up funds to the BLM to hire additional staff to help process the Applications for Permits to Drill. The industry set up an account at the North Dakota Petroleum Council for the BLM to hire two full-time staff persons, funded by oil companies whose names the BLM did not know, to avoid any conflicts of interest.
That worked for a couple of years, but officials got a little nervous about appearances, so they changed the rules, applying a pretty stiff fee for permit applications and letting the local office keep the money to hire staff. The Dickinson office has been processing about 800 applications a year, although that number has been cut about in half lately because of the downturn in oil prices and resulting slowdown in drilling activity (commonly known as the Bakken Bust). The fees are helping to keep staff on board to process applications in a timely manner.
The year 2020 was not just a bust in North Dakota’s oilfields — it was also an election year. And elections, as they say, have consequences. So, now the election is over. Our new president, Joe Biden, will choose a Secretary of the Interior, a Cabinet position, and that secretary will choose a director of the BLM, and the president will submit his or her name to the U.S. Senate for confirmation.
President Biden and his new secretary are unlikely to choose William Perry Pendley. It may take some time, but perhaps a new BLM director can correct some of the problems Pendley created. That would be good news for our public lands, and the critters who live there.
Hmmm. I wonder if the mule deer and pronghorns and bighorn sheep and sage grouse figured out a way to vote …
Next: A look at the raid on North Dakota’s roadless wilderness areas.