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Interior Secretary will lead BLM after judge ousts Pendley from public lands role

Interior Secretary will lead BLM after judge ousts Pendley from public lands role
© Courtesy Department of Interior

The Department of the Interior will not name a new acting director to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after it’s leader was ousted by a federal judge, top officials told employees in an email obtained by The Hill.

Instead the job will be left to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

A Montana-based U.S. district judge on Friday ruled William Perry Pendley, the controversial acting director of BLM, "served unlawfully ... for 424 days" and enjoined him from continuing in the role.

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The decision was in response to a suit from Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockInterior says Pendley to remain at BLM despite 'dramatic tweets' from Democrats Democrat trails by 3 points in Montana Senate race: poll Poll shows statistical tie in Montana Senate race MORE (D), who argued Pendley, whose nomination to lead the BLM was pulled by the White House last month, was illegally serving in his role through a series of temporary orders. 

A Wednesday email makes clear that Interior will not be placing the top career official in charge of the nation’s public lands agency, as its department manual dictates.

“I understand there may be some questions about the ruling on Friday regarding William Perry Pendley’s leadership role at the Bureau of Land Management,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond wrote in an email to BLM staff.

“Secretary Bernhardt leads the bureau and relies on the BLM’s management team to carry out the mission. Deputy Director for Programs and Policy, William Perry Pendley, will continue to serve in his leadership role.”

Judge Brian Morris, an Obama appointee, ruled Friday that Interior and the White House improperly relied on temporary orders far beyond the 210 days allotted in the Federal Vacancies Reform Act while also violating the Constitutional requirement to seek approval from the Senate.

“The President cannot shelter unconstitutional ‘temporary’ appointments for the duration of his presidency through a matryoshka doll of delegated authorities,” he wrote.

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Pendley has sparked controversy over the course of the year he has led BLM due to his long history opposing federal ownership of public lands as well as comments he has made questioning climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Putting Bernhardt at the helm of the agency appears to comply with the court order from Morris. 

But critics say the move centralizes power for the agency in the highest political circles after relocating more than 200 Washington, D.C.,-based positions to Grand Junction, Colo.,  in order to bring employees closer to the lands they manage.

The move leaves just 61 BLM employees in Washington.

“Secretary Bernhardt’s decision to centralize final decision-making in Washington, D.C., undermines the entire argument underpinning the Bureau of Land Management’s expensive and unnecessary headquarters relocation. Far from bringing the BLM’s decision-makers ‘closer to the people,’ Secretary Bernhardt is highlighting the Trump Administration’s true intention all along to keep agency decisions closer to political appointees,” said Mike Saccone, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation.

Hammond’s email includes a statement from Interior solicitor Daniel Jorjani making clear that the department will appeal Morris's decision as Bernhardt shepherds the BLM.

“The Department of the Interior believes this ruling is erroneous, fundamentally misinterprets the law and unreasonably attempts to up-end decades of practice spanning multiple presidential administrations from both parties. Nevertheless, the Department will comply with the Court’s Order, while we move forward with an appeal and review all other legal options,” Jorjani wrote.

“The Bureau of Land Management has not had a Senate-confirmed Director of the Bureau of Land Management during this Administration, nor has it named an Acting Director. This is still the case in respect to this decision. Consistent with the law, Secretary Bernhardt will continue to lead the Department and all of its bureaus, including the Bureau of Land Management.”

Hammond's email also includes two memos written under the Obama administration that say the highest career-level position within the BLM, the deputy director for operations position currently held by Michael Nedd, should lead the department in the case of an absence before the policy director role filled by Pendley. 

Aaron Weiss, deputy director of Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group, has long argued Interior is centralizing too much power in the Office of the Secretary when many decisions should fall to high-ranking career officials.

“[Bernhardt’s] centralized all decisionmaking authority in his office in D.C. so no land management decisions can be made by career officials that know what they're doing,” he previously told The Hill. 

Updated 2:01 p.m.