Pendley’s BLM decisions in Western states targeted for rollback

sage grouse in flight
Sage grouse in flight in Elko County. (Photo by Jearred Foruria/Bureau of Land Management, Elko District)

A federal judge’s ruling that the acting head of the Bureau of Land Management was serving unlawfully in that position could have implications for dozens of decisions the agency made across the West during the past 15 months—including in Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.

After the judge’s Sept. 25 ruling that William Perry Pendley had been unlawfully acting as director of the BLM since July 2019, conservation groups and state governments in affected areas have been working to identify agency actions that could be overturned as a result. Tuesday, a coalition of 60 conservation groups, led by the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, listed 30 site-specific decisions that the groups said should be reversed.

The list included two Nevada sites, five in Colorado and two in Arizona.

In addition, the groups raised questions about the contentious move of BLM headquarters last year from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo.

In a federal suit that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock brought against the BLM and Pendley, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled that only a presidentially nominated and Senate-confirmed director could lead the agency.

President Donald Trump appointed Pendley to be deputy director for policy and programs in July 2019. That position did not require Senate approval.

The suit focuses on two major decisions in Montana but has implications throughout BLM’s jurisdiction, mainly across 12 Western states.

“Obviously, if he was acting illegally in Montana, he was acting illegally everywhere,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, the National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president for public lands. Stone-Manning previously worked for Bullock.

It remains unclear, though, how decisions outside Montana might be successfully challenged.

Monday filings

Another quartet of conservation groups—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Environmental Law Center, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians—asked to join the Montana suit on Monday.

The Nevada actions the groups are targeting for reversal are:

  • Approving plans for the Gemini Solar Project near Las Vegas on May 11.
  • The Nevada and Northeastern California draft supplemental environmental impact statement  for Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation, published Feb. 21.

The Arizona actions the conservation groups are targeting for reversal are:

  • Allowing livestock grazing at Sonoran Desert National Monument, approved on Sept. 29.
  • Approving a 150-mile transmission line from Maricopa County to Riverside County, Calif., on Nov. 21, 2019.

The Colorado actions the groups are targeting for reversal are:

  • The resource management plan for Browns Canyon National Monument, approved July 27.
  • The resource management plan for Uncompahgre Field Office, approved April 10.
  • An amendment to the travel and transportation management resource management plan for the White River Field Office, approved Feb. 7.
  • A designation of three areas of critical environmental concern in Southwest Colorado, approved Jan. 29.
  • The Northwest Colorado draft supplemental environmental impact statement  for Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation, published Feb. 21.

They said if allowed to join, they would provide a list of decisions that should be overturned, including a decision last week to allow livestock grazing at Sonoran National Desert in Arizona.

Melissa Hornbein, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who led that effort, declined to comment until the judge rules on her request.

In a court filing Monday, Bullock said the agency should set aside resource management plans for the Montana sites and an amendment for a third site.

The federal government argued Monday that none of Pendley’s actions should be overturned.

In the specific resource management plans Bullock challenged, Pendley had delegated decision-making and took no formal role in the decisions, the government said. The state also failed to show it was harmed by any of the decisions, the government said.

Stone-Manning said it shouldn’t matter if Pendley delegated decisions. The delegation itself was an improper use of authority and he likely had influence over the subordinate to whom he delegated decisions.

“Some of these policies were signed by Mr. Pendley and are therefore unlawful on their face and must be set aside,” the Tuesday letter said. “Others were not signed by Mr. Pendley but issued under his direction and approval, and so must be set aside absent any additional showing on the part of BLM that they are lawful.”

Bureau-wide policies

In addition to site-specific decisions, the National Wildlife Federation coalition said certain policies and rulemakings should be overturned. Among those was a break from the fees oil and gas developers must pay to operate on federal lands, which has separately come under scrutiny.

The BLM put that policy in place in an effort to keep oil and gas exploration afloat during the COVID-19 economic downturn. The Government Accountability Office said Tuesday the policy was inconsistently applied in different states.

The conservation groups also raised the issue of the BLM moving its headquarters last year from Washington to Grand Junction. It’s unclear how much control Pendley had over the move, but he acted as the public face of the decision.

The Trump administration and supporters of the plan, including Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., sold it as a way for the bureau to move closer to the lands it oversees. Opponents have said it undermined the BLM’s professional workforce based in Washington.

The letter only calls for a “review” of the move. Stone-Manning said the ruling could allow for BLM employees who did not make the move to win their jobs back.

“Hundreds of people lost their jobs because they chose not to make the move,” Stone-Manning said. “Who signed that paperwork? Was it William Perry Pendley? And if so, do those people have some recourse to get their jobs back? I don’t know, but it’s a question that needs to be answered.”

A Department of Interior spokesman did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler is a national correspondent for States Newsroom.