William Perry Pendley, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, appeared before the House Natural Resources Committee in Washington to answer questions about the administration's plans to move bureau headquarters from the District of Columbia to the West, closer to the 388,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) the agency oversees.
The toughest questions were about his attitude toward public lands and Native Americans.
Rep. Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat, asked Pendley about a 2016 article he wrote saying the nation's founders intended for the federal government to sell all its land.
"I have never advocated the wholesale disposal or transfer of those lands," Pendley said. "I support the president and (Interior Secretary David) Bernhardt in their crystal-clear opposition to the wholesale disposal or transfer of public lands."
Neguse asked if the word "wholesale" was a loophole that would allow the administration to sell or transfer land. Pendley replied that he was referring to Congress' authority to mandate transfers.
"There may be case-specific circumstances where we do transfer or dispose, but Congress is the boss," Pendley said.
Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, brought up allegations that in a 2009 meeting of Republicans, Pendley mocked Native Americans for wanting to protect land they consider holy. She said Pendley reportedly used his fingers to indicate quotation marks around the word "holy."
She asked Pendley if that was appropriate for an employee of the Bureau of Land Management, which protects culturally important areas.
"I was not speaking as a member of the BLM. I was speaking as a private attorney representing private clients," Pendley said.
"So you were able to just forget what you did back then, and now that you're working for BLM, everything's OK?" Haaland shot back.
Pendley answered that the American people are now his clients, and "I'm a zealous advocate for my client."
He said he was happy to now work with Native Americans, particularly on energy development.
Before he joined the Bureau of Land Management, Pendley represented an oil company in a legal dispute over proposed oil and gas drilling on Montana land considered sacred by the Blackfoot tribes of the U.S. and Canada and said the tribes' concerns were driven by "religious myth."
"There's absolutely nothing there," Pendley told an Associated Press reporter last year. "The tribe is simply saying 'It's part of our myth. The whole area is part of our myth.'"
Bernhardt named Pendley the acting head of the BLM in July. The agency oversees public land - 99% of it in 12 Western states - and balances competing demands from oil and gas drilling, mining, ranching, outdoor recreation and environmental protection.
Pendley is a longtime advocate for ranchers and others in disputes with the federal government over grazing and other uses of public lands. Environmental groups called his appointment alarming, but some Western ranchers were pleased, saying it was a sign the Trump administration was pushing to open public lands to all uses, including grazing and mining.
One of Pendley's first duties will be overseeing the administration's plan to move the bureau's headquarters to Grand Junction, in western Colorado, and disperse about 300 Washington-based employees across the West.
Most of the bureau's 10,000 employees are already in Western field offices, but Pendley repeated the administration's argument that moving most of the Washington staff to the West would lead to better, faster decisions.
When Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, asked whether moving so many employees West would leave a leadership vacuum in Washington, Pendley replied, "I'll be here," along with budget and policy officials.
Interior Department spokesman Russell Newell said later that Pendley would remain in Washington in his permanent role as deputy director for policy and programs. Newell said the next permanent director would be based in Grand Junction.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown contributed from Billings, Montana.
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