Governor asks court to block actions by Trump's land boss

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Photo credit FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2020, file photo, William Perry Pendley, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, speaks to the media on the Grizzly Creek Fire in Eagle, Colo. A federal judge has ruled that the Trump administration's leading steward of public lands has been serving unlawfully and blocked him from continuing in the position. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, that U.S. Bureau of Land Management acting director William Perry Pendley was never confirmed to the post by the U.S. Senate and served unlawfully for 424 days. Montana's Democratic governor had sued to remove Pendley, saying the the former oil industry attorney was illegally overseeing a government agency that manages almost a quarter-billion acres of land, primarily in the U.S. West. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP, File)
By The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The governor of Montana on Monday asked a judge to block three sweeping land use plans that would open most U.S.-owned lands in the state to energy development, saying the documents were made invalid after the Trump administration’s public lands boss was removed for being in the post unlawfully.

A judge last month ousted Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director William Perry Pendley after he served as acting director of the agency for more than a year without receiving a confirmation vote from the U.S. Senate as required under the Constitution.

The ruling, in a lawsuit brought by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, marked a stinging rebuke against the Trump administration’s practice of keeping unconfirmed officials in key posts by issuing them repeated “temporary” authorizations.

Bullock, a Democrat, told The Associated Press in an interview that all actions undertaken across the U.S. during Pendley’s 424-day tenure atop the agency are now subject to legal challenge. But Bullock said he was contesting only actions that directly affect Montana residents, leaving it to other states or conservation groups to challenge any additional work or decisions made under Pendley’s watch.

The agency oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of land, primarily in the U.S. West.

Pendley is a former oil industry attorney from Wyoming who had long called for selling federal lands until he joined the administration and disavowed that stance. Under his oversight, federal officials rejected concerns raised by Montana residents and officials over the amount of land that could be subject to drilling under three land use plans that cover much of eastern, central and western Montana.

“Certainly, there’s going to be resource development. But let’s actually listen to the people on the ground along the way,” Bullock said. “This ought to be a very public, bottom-up driven process.”

The governor added that statements from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in which he vowed to retain Pendley in a leadership role amounted to a potential “bait and switch” in defiance of the Sept 25 order from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris that removed Pendley.

Interior officials did not immediately respond to Monday's court filing. Instead, they reiterated comments made by Bernhardt to a Colorado news outlet last week in which he said environmentalists’ “hopes and dreams are about to be crushed” if they believed Pendley's removal would invalidate his actions.

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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @matthewbrownap