Pendley court ruling could unravel Trump’s public lands decisions


A federal judge’s decision to boot a top Trump appointee could jeopardize years of actions the administration has taken on public lands, including an expansion of oil and gas drilling and the decision to uproot the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) headquarters.

A Montana-based U.S. District Court judge on Friday ruled William Perry Pendley, the controversial acting director of BLM, “served unlawfully… for 424 days,” giving the Department of the Interior 10 days to justify why it shouldn’t throw out many of the decisions Pendley has made during his tenure reported The Hill.

Pendley, a polarizing figure due to his long history of opposing federal ownership of public lands, was given the de-facto top spot at BLM through a series of temporary appointments and later a change in succession orders that were successfully challenged by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D).

Though the White House formally nominated him to the job this summer, it rescinded the nod last month when it became clear he would not likely receive Senate confirmation.

Judge Brian Morris, an Obama-era appointee, found Pendley’s tenure to be a violation of the constitution and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which limits the power of acting directors beyond the first 210 days in office.

But Pendley’s predecessors were appointed in a similar fashion — the Trump administration has failed to secure a permanent director for the BLM since taking office — calling into question the validity of many of their decisions as well.

“Depending on what happens next this could invalidate an entire administration’s work of actions at the Bureau of Land Management,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group.

Morris enjoined Pendley from continuing to serve in his role, but now the court will examine the numerous decisions the bureau has made along the way. Pendley has led the department through a relocation that uprooted all but 61 of BLM’s Washington-based staffers and oversaw a number of management plans that would increase access for the oil and gas industry through their up to 20 year lifespan.

“I think the judge is contemplating that 424 days — all of it. If [Pendley] wasn’t properly appointed or placed in his position, I think the judge is inclined to want to know why any of the actions he took were valid,” said Carl Tobias, a law processor at Richmond University School of Law.

One of the resource plans cited by Morris would open 95 percent of 650,000-acres of BLM land to resource extraction like mining and drilling.

“Reversing course on many of Pendley’s disastrous and illegal decisions is a critical next step,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mt.) said in a statement to The Hill, adding that “Majority Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans need to learn a lesson from this mess: turning a blind eye to the public and letting unqualified folks sit unconfirmed in powerful positions is unconstitutional and a dereliction of the Senate’s duty.”

Close observers of the BLM have complained the Trump administration has changed an organization that largely flew under the radar in previous administrations, responsible for balancing recreation and conservation on the nation’s nearly 250 million acres of public lands with energy development and grazing interests.

Source: The Hill