Colorado files lawsuit to reject land management plan that would open public lands to drilling

A trial by the state of Colorado says a federal plan to open public lands in southwestern Colorado to drilling failed to adequately address state concerns and was approved as William Perry Pendley was acting illegally as director of the Bureau of Land Management.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 15 in U.S. District Court in Denver, asks that the plan be thrown out. The office’s Uncompahgre Field Office Management Plan was approved in April 2020 and will guide land use in six counties over the next 20 years.

State officials say the plan should be scrapped. Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit late last year to reject the plan on the same grounds.

In September 2020, a federal judge ruled in a Montana state complaint that Pendley had served as acting director longer than expected for a position that requires Senate confirmation. Judge Brian Morris said any action taken by anyone serving in violation of law “shall be of no force or effect”.

The Home Office said the judge misinterpreted the law. He defended the development and approval of the management plan, saying the state and local communities have been involved over the years.

“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to head the U.S. Office of Land Management, Colorado and other western states wouldn’t be in this difficult situation,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement.

State officials unsuccessfully protested the plan, which they said did not adequately address Colorado’s concerns about potential impacts to wildlife habitat, climate change and the Gunnison sage-grouse, a bird that found only in western Colorado and a small part of Utah. The grouse is federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and other outdoor recreation contribute more than $34.5 billion annually to the state’s economy and are important to the economy of rural areas , as the counties covered by the management plan, according to the lawsuit.

The BLM management plan covers nearly one million acres in Montrose, Gunnison, Ouray, Mesa, Delta and San Miguel counties. The BLM oversees 675,800 acres of public lands in the region and administers 971,220 acres of federal oil, gas, and other minerals in the region.

The BLM plan is also opposed by North Fork Valley residents who don’t want to see more drilling in the area. The valley, which includes the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss, has become known for its organic farms, vineyards and artists.

A permanent BLM director was never appointed under the Trump administration. Pendley’s nomination was withdrawn after opposition from Democratic senators and advocacy organizations erupted.

Morris ruled in the Montana lawsuit that Pendley served as acting director of the BLM for 424 days, violating a federal law that caps the amount of time an acting director can hold a position that requires Senate confirmation at 210 days.

Pendley, a Wyoming native, is the former president of the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, known for challenging public land regulations.