Nearly 30 years after serving in Ronald Reagan’s administration, William Perry Pendley is back at the Interior Department, this time as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Speaking by phone one floor down from his old office, Pendley told Western Wire he is looking forward to tackling a new set of challenges.

“When I was here with the Reagan administration it was a very cohesive team at the DOI moving in the same direction under a great secretary. I believe it is the same circumstance that exists today,” Pendley said, adding that President Trump had “set out a clear course” for the Interior Department, one that focuses on “meaningful conservation stewardship.”

William Perry Pendley via Bureau of Land Management

Pendley describes his approach as making sure that the federal government is a “good neighbor” to western states and communities. This means using regulation with a light hand and encouraging the development of jobs and industry in the west.

“[The federal government] is the largest landowner in the American West and in many of these rural communities 50 to 80 percent of land is owned by the federal government,” he said. “Now that isn’t necessarily the BLM, but it is critically important that the federal government be a good neighbor.”

It’s also something that Pendley, a native of Wyoming, and fellow western Interior Secretary David Bernhardt understand well.

“[Bernhardt] understands the small communities that are essentially beholden to the federal government before they build and pay for schools, build hospitals and get sons and daughters to come back to the community,”

He discussed opportunities to open federal lands to mineral exploration, particularly “strategic and critical minerals,” such as copper, cobalt, and lithium. These materials have many applications in technology, but are rarely mined in the U.S.

“People don’t realize that inside every device are these minerals that come from sometimes foreign sources in which some cases we can’t rely. China has made it very clear that it is going to utilize the monopoly it has on rare earth minerals,” says Pendley, who instead sees a major opportunity for American industry.  “Every geologist will tell you we have rare earth minerals here in the United States and we ought to be developing them.”

But the agency’s focus isn’t limited to minerals. Its mission is land management. This year, that has meant dealing with wildfires in Colorado, Idaho, and Alaska. Pendley is grateful for the work BLM firefighters have already accomplished.

“Of course, it’s a department wide effort, but 70 percent of the firefighters from the department are Bureau of Land Management folks operating out of Boise and they’re doing a terrific job,” he said. “During the shutdown, we hired like crazy here to make sure we were fully staffed to make sure we were geared up to fight fires this summer and they’ve done a great job. Our rangelands are essential to the preservation of sage grouse and having good sage grouse habitats and also having good places for our ranching community, so hats off to the firefighters.”

In addition to dealing with urgent problems like fires, Pendley will shape BLM policy and direction. Part of his task will be balancing responsible development with preserving the beauty of America’s open spaces. Congress is taking an increased interest in the state of America’s National Parks, with Montana Sen. Steve Daines (R) hosting a field hearing on Thursday to address billions of dollars of backlogged national parks maintenance. Pendley agrees with the need for attention.

“Whether it’s recreation or timber or oil and gas, the President and Sec. Bernhardt have made it very clear we are supposed to be improving these recreational opportunities and we are supposed to be enhancing the visitor experience by better meeting infrastructure needs,” he said.

Pendley is eager to get started working with westerners to improve how we use our public lands. This is part of why he is optimistic about the BLM’s forthcoming move to Grand Junction, Colorado, something that he says will bring resources “closest to the people” and help the bureau to understand the impacts of its decisions.

BLM will also be sending more staff out of Washington and into the field to work with state-level staff. He is optimistic about how state-level directors will be able to use the expertise and talent that had previously been restricted to BLM’s Washington office. Not only that, he thinks BLM staff will gain new insight through seeing how policies impact the situation on the ground.

“Every state is going to have the benefit of new BLM people who are right now at the headquarters who are moving out into the field, and like I said whether its Billings or Boise or Santa Fe or Carlsbad, they’re all going to be affected by new people coming in from Washington,” he said, stressing the importance of seeing how policy changes work in the real world.

“There is nothing like being on the ground when it comes to developing these plans or these policies or responding to public comment,” Pendley said. “It’s one thing to be in DC; it’s another thing to be out west and be out there and see what’s going on.”

And the part he likes best? It might be the west itself.

“I think it’s a vast improvement with their quality of life you know moving out of DC and moving to any beautiful community out west.”