The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost 10% of land in the United States. For 424 days, William Perry Pendley, the director of the BLM, has been serving without Senate confirmation, in a “temporary” position. President Trump appointed Pendley in June of 2019, to the consternation of not just environmentalists and conservationists, but anyone who enjoys recreating on public lands and who would not directly profit from resource extraction on those lands, or from selling them to private interests. A typical Trump-era appointment; put a person in charge of a public agency they detest.
Friday, a federal judge ruled that Pendley, having never been confirmed by the Senate, must leave the job immediately.
Pendley had written, as recently as 2016, that the federal government had a duty to sell off public lands.
Pendley called President Obama’s policies to restrict drilling on public lands, “lawless placating of environmental extremists.” He favored shrinking national monuments like Utah’s Bears Ears.
Not the kind of guy you want running an agency that oversees such massive swaths of public lands, most of it in Western states.
In August, after being advised that a full year after nominating Pendley, the Senate likely wouldn’t have the votes to confirm Pendley, Trump technically rescinded the nomination, but Pendley continued to act in the role.
The move comes as a result of a successful lawsuit from Montana’s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, (who is running a close race to unseat Republican Senator Steve Daines), who sued to remove Pendley in July. In Friday’s ruling, Chief District Judge Brian Morris of the US District Court of Montana, ordered Pendley to leave his post, ruling that he’d been serving unlawfully.
“Pendley has served and continues to serve unlawfully as the Acting BLM Director,” Morris wrote in his opinion. “His ascent to Acting BLM Director did not follow any of the permissible paths set forth by the U.S. Constitution or the (Federal Vacancies Reform Act). Pendley has not been nominated by the President and has not been confirmed by the Senate to serve as BLM Director.
“Secretary Bernhardt lacked the authority to appoint Pendley as an Acting BLM Director under the FVRA,” Morris continued. “Pendley unlawfully took the temporary position beyond the 210-day maximum allowed by the FVRA. Pendley unlawfully served as Acting BLM Director after the President submitted his permanent appointment to the Senate for confirmation — another violation of the FVRA. And Pendley unlawfully serves as Acting BLM Director today, under color of the Succession Memo.”
There’s a big wrinkle here too.
Because the judge’s ruling makes clear the BLM was led by an unlawfully appointed director, it’s possible that every move undertaken by the BLM under Pendley can be undone; it’s possible that since the BLM was operating with temporary heads under Trump before Pendley took over, many BLM actions since 2017 could be struck down.
“They’ve never had a valid person running that agency,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Even before Pendley there was just a never-ending list of rotating acting people, and that’s not what you’re supposed to do.”
“We haven’t had a decision of this caliber in a longtime related to Interior decision making,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
Top photo: BLM website