Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
Sues Over “Acting” Positions For National Park Service, BLM Directors

Posted by National Parks Traveler Staff (NPT)- May 11th, 2020

NPT Editor’s note: This updates with reaction from the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and National Parks Conservation Association.

David Vela, the de facto director of the National Park Service, and William Perry Pendley, the de facto director of the Bureau of Land Management, have been kept in their positions unconstitutionally, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, the watchdog group and Western Watersheds Project claim Interior Secretary David Bernhardt also broke federal law by using Vela and Pendley, deputy directors, to work as agency heads.

According to the PEER, last week “Bernhardt issued an order giving the power to ‘exercise the authority of the director’ of the NPS and BLM to those two men for another 30 days. It is the latest in a series of 18 of such delegations for a number of vacant top-tier Interior positions. Notably, these two agencies have not had Senate-confirmed directors during Trump’s tenure.”

Vela had been nominated in 2018 to be director of the Park Service, but the nomination was never voted on by the full Senate.

Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, sees a legitimate need for the Park Service director to have been confirmed by the Senate “so that she or he is able to speak truth to power without fear of losing his or her acting job. It’s too easy to simply return the acting employee back to the position they occupied before being appointed acting director. Being confirmed by the Senate adds a level of security that allows for more decision making at the director level where it properly belongs. A confirmed director can think more long-term to help establish a way forward for the agency and clarify for the agency as a whole what the priorities are.”

“The lack of a confirmed director,” Francis continued in an email, “appears to be a political calculation that appears to be oriented toward what’s best for the administration politically rather that what’s best for the National Park Service and America’s national parks.”

At the National Parks Conservation Association, Kristen Brengel said her organization continues to be “concerned about decisions and policies put forward by the administration.”

“Time and time again, it’s painfully obvious National Park Service staff who have the most knowledge about a specific park or expertise on an issue are shut out of decisions,” said Brengel, NPCA’s senior vice president for government affairs. “We think the odds of having a park voice in the room would increase with a Senate-approved director. The Interior Department is running the show and making decisions that align with their political positions, not always making the best decisions for the long-term protection of national parks.”

In their lawsuit (view here), PEER and Western Watersheds ask the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., to rule that Vela and Pendley lack the authority to “exercise the authority of the director” because they were never confirmed by the Senate under the “advise and consent” provision of the U.S. Constitution. More so, neither was “named or qualified to serve as ‘acting’ directors under the requirements of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act,” the groups argue.

“This is only the latest in a long line of legal violations by the Trump Administration,” said Peter Jenkins, senior counsel at PEER, noting that this latest redelegation expires on June 5. “The illegitimate Pendley appointment is particularly troublesome because he has forcibly moved the BLM Headquarters from Washington, D.C., to remote western Colorado. In doing so, he uprooted the lives of scores of seasoned BLM staff and disrupted this already strained agency.”