Bureau of Land Management's headquarters in Grand Junction, CO (source: blm.gov)

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Public employees and environmental groups recently filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s appointments for two of the nation’s largest public lands management agencies. In addition to the legal and constitutional complaints, advocates also worry about agency mishandling of parks and public lands as the rural outdoor recreation and tourism economy swings into high season during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“These appointments are outrages, not nominations,” said Peter Jenkins, senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization that represents public-sector workers in complaints against the agencies that employ them and one of the bringing forward the lawsuit. “Legally, President Trump hasn’t done what he could to fulfill his Constitutional mandate of ‘advice and consent’ from the Senate, and his greatest interest seems to be in defunding and dismantling what he keeps calling the ‘deep state.”

Jenkins said in an interview with the Daily Yonder that Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt has been following Trump’s lead, installing de facto directors of the National Park Service (NPS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). “There’s not a lot of precedent for the way Bernhardt is handling these important posts. Many positions are vacant, and the federal government is hollowed out when credible, confident public leaders are needed most,” Jenkins said.

The lawsuit 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.

“Trump ordered Bernhardt to open parks, and Bernhardt followed the President’s lead and forced Director Vela to spring into action as the threat of a public health pandemic continues,” Jenkins said. “There has been no clear guidance for visitor safety, no clear mandate to protect public employees and staff. With the pandemic, we need all hands on deck right now to address the millions of Americans wanting clear direction as they look to visit our nation’s public lands this summer.”

The lawsuit states that Bernhardt illegally appointed Deputy Directors David Vela for NPS and William Perry Pendley at BLM as directors. Neither has been nominated or confirmed by the Senate or appointed by President Trump as “acting” director under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

PEER’s suit is joined by the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a conservation group that regularly litigates federal land management agencies to assure compliance with existing environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act. In the lawsuit announcement, the WWP focused their criticism on the BLM’s Pendley.

“These serial, ‘temporary’ appointments for Pendley to head the nation’s largest public lands agency are not only irresponsible but illegal, as well,” stated Erik Molvar of WWP in a press release. “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.”

Conner Swanson, Interior Department spokesperson, in a comment for The Hill, called the lawsuit “baseless.” “As we continue to address this national emergency, these special interest groups would rather seek to divert critical taxpayer resources on a baseless lawsuit and attempt to remove the leaders of critical government bureaus. Mr. Pendley and Mr. Vela are providing crucial leadership, and the Department is grateful for their service,” Swanson told The Hill.

The National Park Service system includes 419 areas covering more than 85 million acres in every state and territory. These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House. The park service employs approximately 20,000 full, part-time, and seasonal employees each year.

The BLM manages more land and sub-surface mineral rights than any other federal agency. The BLM’s 245 million acres of public forest, grass, and rangelands are located primarily in 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of the sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation.