A court will now decide if a new Bureau of Land Management resource management plan for the agency’s Uncompahgre Field Office based in Montrose is illegal in part because of William Perry Pendley’s role in approving it.

Conservation and citizen groups have amended a lawsuit challenging the plan to argue that Pendley was improperly exercising the authority of director of the BLM when the plan was finalized.

Citizens for a Healthy Community, High Country Conservation Advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians already had sued in August over the plan, in part because of concerns about future oil and gas leasing in the North Fork Valley.

They say the BLM broke the law in failing to consider a plan to end new fossil fuel leasing, or look at how more oil, gas and coal development could harm organic agriculture, the climate and imperiled species like the Gunnison sage-grouse. A second group of conservation organizations subsequently has sued over the plan, which covers energy development, recreation, livestock grazing and other uses on BLM lands in parts of Montrose, Delta, Gunnison, Ouray, San Miguel and Mesa counties.

The newly amended suit reflects recent rulings by federal Judge Brian Morris in Montana. He ruled in September that Pendley, the BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, served illegally as acting director for more than a year because he hadn’t been confirmed by the Senate and didn’t fall in the permitted category of people who can serve as acting director. Then Morris later found that three BLM resource management plans in Montana are illegal because of the role Pendley played in their approval.

Morris held that the three Montana plans must be set aside because Pendley, acting in an illegal capacity, had resolved protests over the plans. Conservationists say Pendley likewise resolved protests over the Uncompahgre plan.

“This amendment to our challenge of the Uncompahgre RMP reflects a reality that is now established legal precedent: Pendley’s authority as bureau director is invalid and planning decisions approved on his watch are likewise invalid,” Melissa Hornbein, a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is helping represent the conservation groups, said in a news release. “The RMP is blatant in its disregard of the law, and our new claim merely reflects the fact that its legal failings stem from Pendley’s unlawful leadership of the bureau.”

The BLM said in a statement Tuesday, “These special interest groups are trying to impose their radical environmental agenda on the hard-working people of Colorado, negatively impacting recreation access, conservation and energy development.”

Conservation groups say at least 16 resource management plans and other actions covering more than 30 million acres in several states are unlawful because of Pendley’s involvement and subject to potential legal challenge. The Interior Department maintains Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has clear legal authority to delegate power to manage agencies, and Bernhardt has maintained that he thinks any actions taken by Pendley were lawful.

Bernhardt told Colorado Politics during a visit to Colorado, “I know there are advocacy groups that have hypothesized about how things will happen (due to the September ruling by Morris). What I would say to them is their hopes and dreams are about to be crushed.”

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