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Environmental groups sue Interior over NPS and BLM appointments

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit Monday against Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt's order last week extending appointments to two officials who have not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit Monday against Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt's order last week extending appointments to two officials who have not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo

May 11 (UPI) -- Environmental protection groups filed a lawsuit Monday against the U.S. Department of Interior over appointments of National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management leaders.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Western Watersheds Project.

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The suit seeks to vacate Interior Secretary David Bernhardt's May 5 order to extend appointments of NPS Deputy Director David Vela and BLM Deputy Director William Pendley by one month.

Neither has been nominated or confirmed by the the U.S. Senate or appointed by President Donald Trump as "acting" director under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, the suit says.

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The groups argue that both are unqualified for their positions, which they have held for months through repeated extensions without any nominee before the U.S. Senate to replace them.

Furthermore, they argued that the extensions also violated the 210-day maximum period they could have stayed in office as acting directors under the the FVRA.

The BLM manages 247 million acres of public land and the NPS is responsible for protecting and preserving 85 million acres, which together makeup almost one-seventh of the nation's total land area, according to a joint statement from PEER and WWP. Together, Pendley and Vela have been in charge of thousands of agency staff and overseen tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded expenditures.

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Interior Department spokeswoman Conner Swanson called the lawsuit "baseless," according to The Hill.

"As we continue to address this national emergency, these special interest groups would rather seek to divert critical taxpayer resources from a baseless lawsuit and attempt to remove the leaders of critical government bureaus," Swanson said. "Mr. Pendley and Mr. Vela are providing crucial leadership, and the Department is grateful for their service."

Pendley was first appointed in July with no prior land management experience and his appointment has continued for more the nine months through extensions, according to the suit.

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"These serial, 'temporary' appointments for Pendley to head the nation's largest public lands agency are not only irresponsible but illegal, as well," Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a joint statement. "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."

As a lawyer for over three decades, Pendley sued federal agencies in "an ultra-conservative, anti-environmental, legal foundation," according to the environmental protection groups.

PEER sought records last July "documenting the basis for his appointment" but it "has not produced a single document" despite a November lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, the statement shows.

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Vela, whose NPS appointment began in September and continued through more than seven months of extensions "has been criticized for chaotic and inconsistent decisions on closing parks during the COVID-19 outbreak, which likely increased risks for both staff and visitors," the joint statement said. "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."

This is not the first time advocacy groups have filed suit to remove appointments under the Trump administration. Earlier this year a federal judge ruled that Ken Cuccinelli's appointment as acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was illegal after advocacy groups sued.

The day after the judgment, Cuccinelli said that he would file an appeal.

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