Energy & Environment

Interior official threatens to withhold jobs in lawmakers’ districts after opposition to BLM move

An outgoing top official at the U.S. Department of the Interior said he may reconsider placing government employees in the home states of lawmakers who expressed opposition to the relocation of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who oversee the Interior Department’s budget through their roles on the Senate and House Appropriations committees, wrote last Friday asking the agency to suspend its relocation of BLM.

{mosads}A response from Joe Balash, BLM’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management who announced Aug. 20 he is resigning from Interior, makes clear their opposition has jeopardized plans to send federal employees to their state.  

“Given your apparent strong feelings about the Department’s actions and intentions, we pledge to review and reconsider the relocation of additional departmental resources to your state,” Balash wrote to the two lawmakers in a letter obtained by The Hill. “We are also open to working with other delegations that object to additional departmental resources being allocated to their states.”

The Department of the Interior announced in July that it would leave just 61 BLM employees in Washington while scattering about 300 other D.C.-based employees to offices all across the West.

While no employees are slated for Minnesota, Udall’s home state of New Mexico was set to receive 32 federal workers under the plan.

“The actions of the department and the lack of justification for this proposal seem to underscore the message that Interior officials fully intended to dismantle and weaken the BLM from the outset,” Udall said in a statement to The Hill.

He went on to outline what he sees as a number of issues with Interior, from slashing BLM’s budget to failing to install a permanent director. The current director, William Pendley, once advocated selling off federal public lands.

“I will continue to ask tough questions of the Department and I will not accept any attempts by the administration to steamroll Congress in their efforts to deliberately dismantle and weaken the BLM,” Udall said. 

McCollum said Balash’s letter shows Interior is once again trying to circumvent Congress.

“Unfortunately, this letter continues the pattern of this administration’s failure to recognize Congress’ role as a co-equal branch of government. It is our constitutional duty to conduct oversight and ensure appropriated taxpayer dollars are spent wisely,” she said in a statement to The Hill. “I along with other members of Congress are concerned that BLM is moving in a direction that will lead to employee attrition and uncertainty in BLM’s ability to achieve its mission and goals.”

Tensions between lawmakers and Interior rose after disagreements over whether Congress had given the go-ahead for the move.  

Others have also asked the agency to hold off on its relocation plans.

The Public Lands Foundation, a 600-member group composed of former BLM employees, asked leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to hold a hearing on a relocation they say will “functionally dismantle” the agency.

Interior plans to move 27 of its top officials to a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., along with relocating employees to other offices out West. They say the move will put employees close to the lands they manage. 

“While you may believe that ease of communication for members of Congress and its staff should be a priority for the bureau’s headquarters location, we believe it is more important that the bureau’s day-to-day focus should be on interacting with your constituents and the American people in fulfilling its mission,” Balash wrote. 

But longtime BLM employees say the move will undercut the agency’s mission, sidelining career staff while leaving political appointees at the helm.

“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?” Steve Ellis, who served in BLM’s highest career-level position before retiring in 2016, previously told The Hill. “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.”

“The agency is basically being decapitated,” he said.

Updated at 11:25 p.m.

Tags Betty McCollum Bureau of Land Management Department of the Interior Joe Balash Tom Udall

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