This Colorado town might be the new home of a federal agency

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — With canyons to the west and the Grand Mesa to the east, Grand Junction seems more suited to filming a spaghetti western than serving as the headquarters of a federal agency.

But if the Trump administration has its way, the town will become the new home of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

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Trump officials, in their push to drastically scale back the BLM's presence in Washington, want to put the agency's employees and offices closer to public lands concentrated in the West.

Instead of choosing a major metropolitan hub such as Denver or Salt Lake City, the BLM will instead be relocated here in Colorado’s Western Slope, about four hours from any major city.

Critics of the planned move argue it's an effort to dismantle the agency — shedding staff who are unable to uproot and move across the country on short notice and keeping them away from the corridors of power in Washington.

And while Grand Junction might seem like a sleepy town to outsiders, it is one of the largest in the region. With a population just above 60,000, it is the biggest city along Interstate 70 between Denver and Utah, about a 500-mile stretch.

© Rebecca Beitsch

In addition to being surrounded by natural beauty — Colorado National Monument, also known as Colorado’s Grand Canyon, serves as a mecca for hikers and cyclists — the arid climate of the valley lends itself to growing grapes and peaches. Palisade, a town just a few miles down the road, is considered Colorado wine country and hosts an annual peach festival.

Downtown Grand Junction also has a citylike atmosphere. Tree-lined Main Street boasts an artist collective, a gelato shop that offers CBD-infused treats, a bagel shop and a candy store, among a host of other restaurants and small businesses.

© Rebecca Beitsch

Grand Junction wouldn’t be the first city outside the Washington area to host an agency — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is headquartered in Atlanta, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to move its research divisions to the Kansas City area.

Many residents and leaders in Grand Junction view the planned move as a perfect match. The headquarters would bring new blood into a community eager to improve its economy while giving BLM staffers the chance to live, work and play near the lands they help manage.

Nearly three-quarters of Mesa County, where Grand Junction is located, is federal land.

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“From an economic standpoint, it helps diversify our economy, which unfortunately over the years has been subject to boom and bust,” said Grand Junction Mayor Rick Taggart, referring to the oil and gas industry and mining for coal and minerals.

“We can’t afford to have an economy so dependent on one set of industries,” he added.

But many critics of the plan are concerned the proximity to energy and grazing interests are designed to skew future use of public lands away from recreational and conservation priorities that are weighed alongside the value of public lands.

“Grand Junction is an oil and gas town,” said Taylor McKinnon, an Arizona-based senior public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The politics in that part of the world is heavily influenced by the oil and gas industry, and they have been for a long time. Moving the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction isn’t going to change, that but it certainty threatens to exert fossil fuel industry influence over that office and that staff that work there.”

BLM retirees have also been particularly vocal in opposing the move. The Public Lands Foundation, a group of former BLM employees, sent a letter to lawmakers this past week asking for a hearing on the plan. The problem isn’t Grand Junction, they say, but a relocation that will “functionally dismantle” the agency.

“There are plenty of BLM employees that would love to go to Grand Junction versus riding Blue Line into work in Washington,” said Steve Ellis, who retired from BLM in 2016 as the deputy director for operations, the highest career-level position that would require a move to Grand Junction under the Interior Department's plan.

But he’s concerned about the way the relocation would break up staff. 

The new headquarters in Grand Junction is slated to house just 27 staffers, while about 300 would be reassigned to existing offices across the West. That would leave just 61 of the agency’s 10,000 employees in Washington.

“You’ve got leadership for most part in Grand Junction and then have their staff literally shotgunned around the West. How is this a model for efficiency for this agency?” Ellis asked. “If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be my playbook. How does it make sense? It’s a model for how not to work.”

Most BLM employees are used to living and moving all across the country, especially the West, jumping from office to office as they advance in their careers.

Retirees say the move to Grand Junction would gut the D.C. office of career staff who have come to the nation's capital after having spent years or even decades out in the field in towns like Grand Junction. They say stints in D.C. gave them the chance to advocate for the needs of remote staff and craft policy alongside political leaders.

They worry that staff in Grand Junction will be isolated — always needing to take an expensive connecting flight to Denver before heading to other BLM offices in the region or to D.C. — and that the cost of travel will keep them from weighing in on other important meetings with top Interior staff and other agencies.

It’s not yet clear how many of the staff headed to Grand Junction will be political appointees, but the deputy director for policy and programs — the highest political position besides the director — will remain in Washington. That leaves critics concerned the move is designed to sideline career staff.

“Political appointees will become the face of BLM in Washington, D.C. — no career staff will be there. They will be a long way away,” Ellis said. “The agency is basically being decapitated.”

Congress also has questions about the plan, with many lawmakers saying they haven't even given the green light to the move.

Proponents acknowledge it's a power shift — not between political and career staff but rather between East and West.

“I understand the convenience of Washington, D.C., and the convenience of being there in person, but with today’s technological advances and teleconferences, those things are way less important. What’s way more important is having a feel of what you’re talking about,” said Scott McInnis, a Mesa County commissioner and former GOP congressman.

“We don’t run this agency for the convenience of the people that work at it. We need to run this agency for the best possible utilization for its mission,” he added.

Though the number of positions slated for Grand Junction is smaller than some anticipated for a new headquarters, McInnis said the heart of the operation will be where it belongs.

“If you want to move a beehive, all you got to do is move the queen bee. Some of the bees may resist moving, but it doesn’t take long before most of the bees follow the queen bee,” he said.