William Pendley’s Bad Idea - The Years Project

William Pendley’s Bad Idea

By Josh Futtersak

Every so often a conservative pundit will bring up the idea of selling off all of America’s public lands to the highest bidder. These people are often banished to the Op-Ed section of the Washington Examiner. 

This time is a little different.

America’s most prolific supporter of selling off America’s public lands is now in charge of the Bureau of Land Management. That means he is in charge of all of America’s public lands.


William Pendley has written countless articles and books on the value of taking public lands out of federal hands. 

His argument rests on three main points:

  1. He is fighting for Western residents 
  2. Public land would better serve the states if it were in their control
  3. The Founding Fathers wouldn’t have wanted us to have public lands anyway

All three of these arguments are incorrect.

First of all, Pendley’s argument that he is fighting for Western residents is laughable. 

A large majority of residents in Western states believe public lands belong to everyone. Year after year, polls show that Westerners believe these are lands that should stay public. The polls show that residents chose to live near public lands because of how much they love access to those lands. Eighty percent believe that national parks are essential to the quality of life in their state.  

Nationwide polls show that 74 percent of Americans do not support selling off public lands. These polls cross party lines with 64 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of independents, and 85 percent of Democrats all in agreement that these lands should not be sold off. 

Finding that kind of agreement between party lines is incredible, especially when polls show one of the only things Democrats and Republicans agree on is that they can’t agree with each other on even basic factsThis bipartisan agreement that public lands are beneficial is enough to sink Pendley’s argument, but we can continue with his line of thinking.  

Pendley believes that federal land is wasted land and it should all be in the hands of the states. If it were up to him (it isn’t) all this land would be used for fossil fuel extraction and ranching. To see why this is incorrect, all you have to do is look at the basic economics of public lands. 

The states are benefiting tremendously. 

Individual states are not really paying for public lands. The federal government is maintaining these lands. In fact, the government pays the states for the privilege of using those lands.

Every year, the average taxpayer across the country spends $4 dollars to protect public lands. Once the land goes to the state, the residents have to pay for all the costs of maintaining it. That means higher taxes for lands that no longer belong to the residents. 

When dangerous wildfires break out, it isn’t the state that pays to put them out. Studies show that if states were responsible for wildfire damage, they would not have the financial resources to put them out. They would have to ask the federal government for resources or raise taxes substantially on their own residents. 

One of the largest uses of public lands is outdoor recreation. Outdoor recreation brings in hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Public lands supply nearly 8 million jobs. On average, rural counties that have public lands have better economies than those without. That also includes higher per-capita income. They also attract business and tourism.

In fact, some states have tested the economics of acquiring public lands, and the results have been pretty terrible. One example is Utah. Utah ordered an economic study to see if they could make more money if they owned all the land within their borders. The study found that the federal government had been paying $247 million a year to maintain these lands, and has also been supporting thousands of jobs that contributed an additional $236 million for the residents of Utah. 

If Utah took over all that land, it would cost them $280 million a year. It would mean a third of their funds going to wildfire management. The study even claims that the only way Utah could see profits would be if oil stayed above $62 dollars a barrel (it has not) and if they immediately started drilling for more oil and gas. Some estimates show Utah needing oil to be as high as $92 dollars a barrel if they want to see a profit. The state would also have to charge ranchers more for grazing and would have to re-negotiate the oil and gas contracts they already have. 

So this plan that Pendley thinks is so great would hurt everyone in Utah. No one wins. Not even the oil and gas companies.

Now let’s take a look at the beliefs of the Founding Fathers. 

Pendley believes they would want to get rid of public land. This argument falls flat based on the fact that the Founding Fathers could never have dreamt of the situation we are in now.

They had no idea how much land would end up in the dominion of the United States and they had no idea the potential of that land. Pendley himself says that in 1829 the “West” only went as far as Illinois. Pendley is actually incorrect since Missouri became a state in 1821, but the point still stands. 

Around this time, Pendley claims that 99.9 percent of Illinois was federal land and residents were a bit ticked off by that. This sounds like a very different situation from what we are currently in and it seems silly for him to have even brought that up at all.

While the Founding Fathers had considered selling off public land to balance the national debt, they most likely would never have considered it if they knew the immense profits that could be made by keeping the land public. 

Furthermore, would the Founding Fathers have consented to unabated fossil fuel extraction in the nation they just finished creating?

Not that you needed this fact check, but the Founding Fathers didn’t exactly know much about the dangers of fossil fuels. As you can see from the graph below, fossil fuels were barely in use. It’s safe to assume they would have a different opinion if they knew what we know now. 

So overall, William Pendely has chosen a weird hill to die on. 

He’s chosen the opposing side of one of the only issues Republicans and Democrats are in agreement on. He’s advocating for something that would cost the states millions of dollars while increasing fossil fuel emissions, and deprive the American public of their national lands. He’s advocating for this based on his interpretation of what people 200 years ago would do who didn’t have any knowledge of the current conditions of the United States.

With all that said, there are always ways to improve the current public land system. The problem is that Pendley seems utterly incapable of making any sort of improvements. He is unable to recognize nuances and respond appropriately. Pendley only deals in absolutes. 

The residents who live near these lands, who want their voices heard, will not be heard by Pendley. The people he claims he advocates for are the very people who are set to be hurt by his reckless policies.