Governor asks court to block actions by Trump's land boss

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks to members of the business community in Billings, Mont., on July 24, 2020. The Democratic governor is asking a federal judge to oust the Trump administration official responsible for overseeing more than quarter-billion acres of public lands. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

BILLINGS, Mont. – The governor of Montana on Monday asked a judge to block three sweeping land use plans that would open most U.S.-owned lands in the state to energy development, saying the documents were invalidated when the Trump administration’s public lands boss was removed for being in the post unlawfully.

A judge last month ousted Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director William Perry Pendley from his post as acting director, where he had been for more than a year without a confirmation vote from the U.S. Senate to lead the agency as required under the Constitution.

The ruling, in a lawsuit brought by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, marked a stinging rebuke against the Trump administration’s practice of keeping unconfirmed officials in some key leadership posts by issuing them repeated “temporary” authorizations.

Administration officials rejected the claim that Pendley had illegally led the bureau and said Monday they would ask the court to leave in place any decisions made under his watch.

Bullock, a Democrat, told The Associated Press in an interview that all actions undertaken during Pendley’s 424 days atop the agency are now subject to legal challenge. Those include oil and gas leasing decisions in Montana and other states and, potentially, a reorganization of the bureau under President Donald Trump that shifted some of its operations to Western states, according to legal filings from Bullock's attorneys.

But Bullock said he was contesting only actions that directly affect Montana, leaving it to other states or conservation groups to challenge any additional work or decisions made under Pendley’s watch.

The agency oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of land, primarily in the U.S. West.

Pendley, a former oil industry and property rights attorney from Wyoming, had called for selling off public lands until he joined the administration and disavowed that stance. He's helped usher the land bureau through a series of moves that eased rules for industry but seen pushback from federal judges.

Under his oversight, federal officials rejected concerns raised by Montana residents and officials over the amount of land that could be subject to drilling and the elimination of conservation protections under newly-adopted land use plans for much of eastern, central and western Montana.

“Certainly, there’s going to be resource development. But let’s actually listen to the people on the ground along the way,” Bullock said. “This ought to be a very public, bottom-up driven process.”

The governor added that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt's vow to retain Pendley in a leadership role amounted to a potential “bait and switch” in defiance of the Sept 25 order from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris that removed Pendley.

Interior officials argued that none of the bureau's actions should be overturned because Bernardt had the legal authority to delegate decision-making. They've vowed to appeal.

Agency spokesman Ben Goldey reiterated comments made by Bernhardt to a Colorado news outlet last week that environmentalists’ “hopes and dreams are about to be crushed” if they believed Pendley's removal would invalidate his actions.

Conservationists who challenged Pendley's legitimacy in a separate lawsuit from Bullock's are also seeking to oust Margaret Everson, the top official at the National Park Service, on similar grounds. Erik Molvar with Western Watersheds Project, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said any decisions made by Everson or others who served temporarily in the same role fall could fall under the same cloud that now hangs over Pendley's actions.

“If an employee is illegally serving and illegally directing an agency and has been involved in decision they have no legal authority to make, the validity of those decisions is deeply in question," Molvar said.


Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @matthewbrownAP