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Washington, DC May 11, 2020 – Interior Secretary David Bernhardt violated the Constitution and federal law when he kept lower-level Deputies in place as the de facto leaders of the National Park Service (NPS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), according to a lawsuit filed today in federal court by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Western Watersheds Project (WWP). The suit faults Bernhardt for illegally authorizing Deputy Directors David Vela of the NPS and William Perry Pendley of the BLM to act in the role of the Director of those important agencies.
On May 5th, Bernhardt issued an order giving the power to “exercise the authority of the Director” of the NPS and BLM to those two men for another 30 days. It is the latest in a series of 18 of such delegations for a number of vacant top-tier Interior positions. Notably, these two agencies have not had Senate-confirmed Directors during Trump’s tenure.
The lawsuit asks the court to rule that they cannot exercise the Director’s authority because they have never been confirmed by the U.S. Senate under the “advice and consent” provision in the U.S. Constitution. Further, they have never been named or qualified to serve as “acting” Directors under requirements of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.
“This is only the latest in a long line of legal violations by the Trump Administration,” stated Peter Jenkins, senior counsel at PEER, noting that this latest redelegation expires on June 5th. “The illegitimate Pendley appointment is particularly troublesome because he has forcibly moved the BLM Headquarters from Washington, DC, to remote western Colorado. In doing so he uprooted the lives of scores of seasoned BLM staff and disrupted this already strained agency.”
During their time in power, extending more than 7 months for Vela and more than 9 months for Pendley, they have been in charge of tens of thousands of agency staff and overseen tens of millions of taxpayer-funded expenditures. The combined land area they control makes up almost one-seventh of the total land area of the nation. The BLM manages 247 million acres of public land – including key sage-grouse habitats – predominantly in western states, while the Park Service is responsible for protecting and preserving 85 million acres consisting of the crown jewels of the public lands system, with NPS units in every state.
“These serial, ‘temporary’ appointments for Pendley to head the nation’s largest public lands agency are not only irresponsible but illegal, as well,” said Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “William Perry Pendley has little chance of surviving the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation process, as he has been a public lands extremist, dedicated to selling off public lands or handing over public resources to mineral and livestock industries throughout his career.”
The factors behind Pendley’s July 29, 2019, appointment remain shrouded in mystery because he lacked the basic qualifications required by law for the position, having been a lawyer suing federal agencies in an ultra-conservative, anti-environmental, legal foundation for three decades. PEER sought the records last July documenting the basis for his appointment. Yet, despite a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act last November, BLM has not produced a single document to date.
Meanwhile, Mr. Vela, whose current NPS appointment began on Sept. 30, 2019, has been criticized for chaotic and inconsistent decisions on closing Parks during the COVID-19 outbreak, which likely increased infection risks for both staff and visitors. He is now under the gun to assess the National Park System’s capacity to avoid dangerous overcrowding and new spikes of infection as parks reopen.
Read the PEER and WWP complaint filed in DC District Court
See Secretary Bernhardt redelegation order of May 5th
View PEER and WWP’s warning that they would sue
Examine PEER’s Nov. 2019 FOIA suit for records on Pendley’s appointment
Look at Pendley’s controversial actions at BLM
Revisit recent chaos around coronavirus closures of National Parks under Vela
Examine WWP’s actions on federal land management