The BLM-managed Flat Top Peach Valley Recreation Area is located in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area east of the Uncompahgre National Forest. It features large expanses of adobe hills and arroyos, as well as pinyon-juniper uplands. (BLM Uncompahgre Field Office)
Colorado has challenged a federal Bureau of Land Management plan for the southwestern part of the state, arguing the plan was invalid because the Trump administration leader of the agency was illegally holding the office.
The state’s Department of Natural Resources filed the suit in federal court on Friday, seeking to overturn a resource management plan for the Uncompahgre Field Office covering parts of Montrose, Delta, Ouray, San Miguel, Gunnison and Mesa counties. State officials said the plan contradicted state environmental goals and was approved by a federal official who was not legally able to do so, citing a similar case in Montana.
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The area covered by the Uncompahgre Field Office includes a productive coal mining area and 46 active oil and natural gas wells, according to the BLM.
The National Wildlife Foundation, a national environmental group, said the BLM-approved plan “prioritized oil and gas development over other uses despite heavy opposition from the local community, hunters, anglers, and other wildlife advocates.”
The plan contradicts Colorado’s “goals to protect sensitive habitat for big game species and other wildlife, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the state said in the suit.
The state Department of Natural Resources and Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, raised those concerns in protests filed with the bureau in 2019. But the bureau, led by William Perry Pendley in the absence of a Senate-confirmed director, dismissed the state’s objections and published a final plan in February 2020.
Pendley did not have the authority to make that decision, the state argued, because he was acting as the BLM director without Senate confirmation and beyond the time limit that federal law allows for temporary officeholders.
A similar suit then-Montana Gov. Steve Bullock brought last year successfully overturned resource management plans in that state.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt appointed Pendley to the deputy director role, which did not require Senate confirmation, in July 2019. President Donald Trump later nominated Pendley for the BLM director position, but pulled the nomination when it was clear a vote on the controversial former anti-federal-lands advocate would be difficult for some vulnerable Senate Republicans.
Bullock, a Democrat, won a case in federal court last year that overturned two resource management plans and an amendment to another Pendley had approved. The judge in that case, Brian Morris, ruled Pendley was serving unlawfully in his position. The Trump administration made no move to replace him and Pendley claimed the ruling had “no impact whatsoever” in the days following the decision.
The Colorado suit is the first of several challenges to Pendley-approved decisions that could follow Morris’ ruling.
Asked to comment on the suit, BLM spokesman Richard Packer lauded the resource management plan, which he said consolidated two plans from the 1980s and was “expected to generate an estimated $2.5 billion in economic output over the life of the plan.”
“The BLM continues to embrace its sustained yield, multiple use mandate, expanding public access for recreation, conservation, and responsible energy development on public lands,” he added.
He did not respond to follow-up questions about the suit.
The suit pressures President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, forcing it to either defend or scrap the Pendley-approved plan.
Representatives for the Biden transition did not respond to messages seeking comment.
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