A newly appointed Trump administration official with ties to Colorado said his past support for selling federal lands was "irrelevant," after his selection to oversee an agency managing nearly a quarter-billion public acres in the U.S. West drew a backlash.
Acting Bureau of Land Management Director William Perry Pendley moved to disavow his longtime advocacy for federal land sales amid continued criticism over his appointment.
The Wyoming native has previously accused government agencies of illegally blocking ranchers, miners and oil and gas companies from profiting off publicly owned range and forest.
He argued in a 2016 National Review article that the "Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold."
Pendley suggested those views have little bearing on his new post, adding that he's now in an administration that "adamantly opposes" the wholesale sale and transfer of public lands.
"I understand the chain of command. I understand and know how to follow orders," Pendley told Montana radio station KBUL-AM. "I get it, so whatever I've said and done in the past is irrelevant."
Western ranchers had welcomed his appointment as evidence that the administration was serious about opening public land to all uses. But it has raised alarm among conservationists, who said it signaled a willingness within the Trump administration to start selling off federal lands.
Tracy Stone-Manning, vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, rejected Pendley's claim that his past views were no longer an issue.
"Mr. Pendley clearly has disdain for our public lands and now he's going to be managing them," Stone-Manning said. "He is bringing a personal value set and a personal belief that public lands have no business being public, which sets him up to fail."
Federal officials acting on Trump's orders have sought to make it easier for oil and gas and mining companies to operate on public lands since he took office. They've also downsized two national monuments in Utah to scale back protections on sacred tribal lands.
In the radio interview, Pendley said "Trump is committed to developing all the lands."
Yet the administration's critics could not point to any major sales of federal lands to outside entities in the 19 months since the Republican took office.
Interior Department spokeswoman Molly Block said two of Pendley's initial acts involved land acquisitions, not sales: the first piece of a planned 20.3-square-mile purchase near Montana's Lower Blackfoot River and 17.4 square miles along Oregon's John Day River.
Perry previously worked as a midlevel Interior Department appointee during the Reagan administration. More recently he led a conservative law firm, the Lakewood-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, and championed private companies and ranchers in standoffs with the federal government over grazing and other uses of public lands.
Some legal disputes he was involved with are ongoing, including an attempt to drill for oil and gas in Montana's Badger-Two Medicine area, which is adjacent to Montana's Glacier National Park and considered sacred among the Blackfoot tribes of the U.S. and Canada.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, asked Pendley to recuse himself from the dispute and all others involving his former law firm and the Interior Department. Pendley has yet to respond, Tester press secretary Roy Loewenstein said.