Federal judge boots William Perry Pendley from BLM acting director role

Official had been nominated, then withdrawn, for Senate confirmation

A hiker visits the BLM-administered McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area near Grand Junction, in September, 2013. (Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management)

A federal judge in Montana has ordered that conservative firebrand William Perry Pendley should not lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, saying that Pendley has “served unlawfully” for more than a year.

U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris in his ruling on Friday also barred Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt from “unlawfully delegating the authority of the BLM director.” In addition, Morris said he would consider which acts Pendley had performed in office should be set aside.

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An Interior Department spokesperson said the decision will be appealed. “This is an outrageous decision that is well outside the bounds of the law,” the spokesperson said. “It betrays long-standing practice of the Department going back several administrations. We will be appealing this decision immediately.”

Morris is the chief judge for the U.S. District of Montana, and the ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in July meant to enjoin Pendley from continuing to head up BLM.

Head of the BLM William Perry Pendley. (blm.gov)

Morris said in his ruling: “The Court declares that William Perry Pendley served unlawfully as the Acting BLM Director for 424 days.”

The BLM manages about 12% of land in the United States. It has an outsize presence in Colorado, where it manages about 8.3 million acres acres of land. Grand Junction is the site of the agency’s new headquarters, a relocation championed by Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, and Pendley, whose office is in Grand Junction, has a residence in the Denver area, according to the Interior spokesperson.

Gardner campaign and senatorial staff did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Pendley decision.

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet tweeted a response Friday. “From the perspective of Colorado, the decision on Mr. Pendley has been clear from the get-go: Someone who’s spent his entire career opposed to the very idea of public lands is unfit to lead a land management agency. Period,” Bennet wrote. On Sept. 15, Bennet in a speech on the Senate floor called for Pendley to leave the BLM.

Pendley was tapped by Bernhardt for a senior role at the agency in July 2019 and nominated as director earlier this year, which would require U.S. Senate confirmation.

But his nomination was withdrawn by the Trump administration in August amid an outcry from advocacy groups. It also appeared the White House made the move to protect three vulnerable Republican senators from Western states — Gardner, Martha McSally of Arizona and Steve Daines of Montana — from a tough confirmation vote.

Bennet, Senate Democrats call for Pendley’s removal at BLM after withdrawn nomination

Pendley had nonetheless remained in charge as BLM’s deputy director of programs and policy. 

Pendley was allowed to act with the authority of the BLM director’s office until a director is confirmed, according to an order that Pendley and Casey Hammond, an Interior official who oversees public lands issues, signed in May, before Pendley was nominated by the president.

The administration has said that the order does not officially make Pendley the agency’s acting director and therefore does not conflict with the Vacancy Reform Act that limits acting officials’ legal tenure to less than nine months.

But Morris used pointed language to shoot down such rationalizations.

“Federal Defendants’ argument attempting to distinguish an ‘Acting Director’ from an ‘official performing the Director’s duties under the Secretary’s delegation’ represents a distinction without a difference,” Morris wrote in his decision. “Such arguments prove evasive and undermine the constitutional system of checks and balances.”

He likened the administration’s attempts to skirt vacancy laws to “a matryoshka doll of delegated authorities.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a comment from an Interior Department spokesperson.

Colorado Newsline staff contributed to this report.