It’s back to the drawing board for three Montana land management plans published this year by the Bureau of Land Management, according to a federal judge.
Great Falls federal judge Brian Morris followed up his September decision ousting William Perry Pendley from the BLM leadership position by ruling that Montana’s land management plans, including the Missoula Office plan, are invalid because Pendley signed them without the authority to do so. The Lewistown and Miles City offices produced the other two plans.
In the 10 days Morris allowed for arguments following his first ruling, federal attorneys tried to argue that the BLM director isn’t the only one who can approve resource management plans. Morris said that may be so, but it still must be the BLM director who delegates that authority.
The U.S. Senate never confirmed Pendley as the director – Trump withdrew Pendley’s nomination – and the BLM hasn’t had a confirmed director in more than three years.
In a statement Saturday, the BLM said it will “fight this outrageous decision,” arguing the litigation “comes at the expense of the great people of Montana who, for the time being, are subjected to decades old (resource management plans) that limit Montanans’ ability to work, recreate, and conserve our public lands.”
The judge also noted that the Interior Department has yet to act on his Sept. 25 ruling that found Pendley was illegally exercising the authority of BLM director. Pendley hasn’t stopped pulling the strings at the BLM.
“The Interior Solicitor announced publicly that the ‘Department will comply with the Court’s Order.’ Other officials, including Pendley, appear more reticent in their acknowledgment of the effect of the Court’s September Order,” Morris wrote.
Two weeks ago, during a conference in Powell, Wyo., Pendley confirmed that, saying Morris’ ruling had no effect on his position, because he is not the acting director. Pendley went on to say Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had given him the authority to exercise the delegable, non-exclusive duties and functions of the Director.
“But…if there’s something that needs action by the director of the Bureau of Land Management, I won’t be doing that. The judge said I can’t do that. And so, I won’t be doing that,” Pendley said in a release.
However, the day before that release, Pendley had told the Powell Tribune that he had Trump’s backing to stay where he was.
“I have the support of the Secretary of the Interior and my job is to get out and get things done to accomplish what the president wants to do — which means increase recreational opportunities on federal land and to increase opportunities for jobs, so we can recover back to where we were pre-pandemic,” Pendley told the Powell Tribune.
The problem is at least two of the BLM resource management plans in Montana didn’t increase recreational opportunities as much as they increased access for extractive industries, such as oil and gas around Lewistown and logging east of Missoula.
The two plans made no attempt to hide the fact that the BLM has prioritized resource extraction, and few opportunities were included for land or wildlife conservation. Protections for wilderness study areas were eliminated, and the Lewistown plan opened up more than 617,000 arces in that region to oil and gas.
Public comments accused the BLM of abandoning its multiple-use mandate. But Pendley, an attorney for the oil and gas industry and former president of the conservative law firm Mountain States Legal Foundation, ignored those comments. Pendley was also the attorney who pushed to keep a Solonex oil and gas lease in the Badger Two Medicine area that is sacred to the Blackfeet Nation.
“It is hard to measure the damage William Perry Pendley has done to America’s public lands, but this order rightly reverses several of the decisions made under his illegal watch. It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, National Wildlife Federation associate vice president for public lands. “The state of Montana has just shown that Pendley’s decisions are illegal because he was acting unlawfully as director. If that’s the case in Montana, it’s the case everywhere. This administration has failed our public lands, and we’ll fight to rectify all of Mr. Pendley’s wrongs.”
Morris determined Montana’s BLM plans were invalid but stopped there, refusing to rule on other plans because only Montana’s were included as evidence in Gov. Steve Bullock’s July 20 lawsuit against Pendley. After Morris’s Sept. 25 ruling, conservation groups asked him to weigh in on other BLM actions in 13 western states plus Oklahoma and Ohio, but Morris said they could pursue those cases in the respective federal courts.
Several organizations said they intend to do that, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians.
“During his illegal tenure as director of BLM, Pendley has wreaked havoc on public lands,” said Sarah McMillan, WildEarth Guardians conservation director. “He and the administration that kept unlawfully giving him authority need to be held accountable for the damage they have done, if not in this lawsuit, then through another lawsuit or some other enforcement of the law.”
If the BLM appeals Morris’ ruling, it will take longer than 10 days to see the case through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Any ruling probably won’t occur before the election and any change in administration. In the meantime, Morris’ ruling stands, and the BLM reverts to its former resource management plans, which requires the offices to manage some areas for wilderness character, a concept that was eliminated in the new plans.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.