Trump officials gut DC staff as public lands agency preps to move out West

Trump officials gut DC staff as public lands agency preps to move out West
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The Trump administration has proposed dramatically scaling down the number of staff from a Department of Labor public lands agency who work in Washington, D.C., leaving less than 1 percent of staff working in the nation's capital.

An agencywide reorganization will leave just 61 employees from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the nation's capital after the proposed transfer of 323 D.C.-based employees, which administration officials say would be completed in the next 15 months. 

The move, officials argue, will save taxpayers between $50 million and $100 million over the next 20 years by relocating employees closer to the issues they work on and in areas far more affordable than D.C. But former employees and environmentalists warn that the move will take key voices away from the Washington, effectively silencing them.

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“I think it’s hard to suss out motivation, but I do think the impacts will be to undermine the authority of these employees. They will be further from the center of power and there’s a big potential that the BLM will lose those employees and others, expert people, in the reshuffle,” said Kate Kelly, a former senior adviser at Interior during the Obama administration who now works at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

“It’s hard to believe that having the director and deputy director thousands of miles away from where secretary sits and makes decisions is a good move for the agency,” Kelly added.

BLM is responsible for overseeing 10 percent of U.S. public lands, including all oil and gas leases for onshore and offshore drilling.

Employees allowed to remain in D.C. will include BLM budget staff, legislative affairs and regulatory affairs aides and public affairs and public records requests divisions. Their offices will move to the Interior Department’s headquarters. The other D.C. staff will join the nearly 10,000 BLM employees who already work from states such as Colorado, Idaho and California.

The reorganization, first considered under former Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeNew policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press Overnight Energy: EPA proposes scrapping limits on coal plant waste | Appointee overseeing federal lands once advocated selling them | EPA lifts Obama-era block on controversial mine Latest appointee overseeing federal public lands once advocated to sell them MORE, is aimed at putting more agency officials closer to the lands they manage out West. At the heart of the change is the relocation of BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo. Just 27 employees will be moved there.

“As Secretary [David] Bernhardt has observed, a meaningful reorganization is not simply about where functions are performed; rather, it is rooted in how changes will better satisfy the needs of the American people,” Joe BalashJoseph (Joe) BalashOvernight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Trump officials gut DC staff as public lands agency preps to move out West Overnight Energy: Trump plan could open Alaska's Arctic region to drilling by next summer | States sue over offshore drilling tests | Lawmakers fail to pass lands bill this year MORE, BLM’s assistant secretary to Land and Minerals Management, wrote in a letter to lawmakers Tuesday, explaining the plan.

“Under our proposal, every Western State will gain additional staff resources. This approach will play an invaluable role in serving the American people more efficiently and advancing the BLM’s multiple-use, sustained yield mission.”

Included in the transition will be many of the agency's most senior policy officials. The Washington headquarters is home to 46 percent of top level policy staffers, according to BLM officials. 

“I kind of laugh at their suggestion that they will save in travel costs,” Kelly told The Hill. “I think that, for example, a ticket in and out of Grand Junction is not an easy flight, and they are likely going to expend a comparable amount of money flying leadership and other senior employees to participate in meetings they should be a part of.” 

Officials expect the move will cost $5.6 million and will pay for it through congressional allocations from fiscal 2019. Interior, which is responsible for covering moving costs to those who do decide to move, said it expects the figures will ultimately be lower as not everyone will agree to move. It’s unknown whether financial options, like buyouts, will be open to those who do not agree to move.

Steve Ellis, a former career official who served as deputy director for BLM over the course of his 38 years with the federal government, said the move was fraught.

“It’s a beautiful town and if I was sitting in a meeting and they said, ‘Raise your hand if want to go to Grand Junction or keeping riding in the red line in from Bethesda’ —I’d go to Grand Junction. But that’s not the issue,” he said. “For the agency to stay relevant our footprint in the bubble is key and it has been for my whole 38 years.”

Ellis said he worked for BLM across the country and in D.C. twice, and he said removing the small percentage of staffers that still work in the D.C. office would remove voices that advocate for those in the field and cost more as they pay to fly out employees who stay in D.C. with an expensive per diem. It also removes those who push the agency to focus on sustainability rather than industry development of resources.

“The lean right now is toward the consumptive interest," he said, “The career leadership in BLM, one of their jobs is to prevent that from going entirely off the rails.”