BLM move would split apart key public lands team

The team that assesses the environmental impacts of major projects on the nation’s public lands will be split up and spread across seven states, according to new internal documents breaking down the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) plans to relocate most of its Washington-based employees out west.

The documents reviewed by The Hill provide insight into how BLM plans to split up teams, spreading people who currently work together to offices across different states.

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“It’s more apparent than ever to me what the goal is for this proposal, and it’s not to make things more efficient and to get things on the ground,” said Steve Ellis, who served 38 years with BLM before resigning from its highest level career position in 2016. “Staff is being scattered so they can’t work together efficiently and effectively.”

The Department of the Interior announced in July that it would be moving to a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., while spreading roughly 300 D.C.-based staffers to existing offices in the west. The plan would leave just 61 employees in Washington. 

The move has been contested by lawmakers, conservationists and former BLM employees who see it as a way to dismantle the agency and sideline career staffers who could present a roadblock to some energy development. 

The team that produces the environmental analysis of major projects required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is one of the groups that would be hit hard by the move.

Under the plan dated Sept. 25, the 20-person NEPA team would be scattered across seven states, with 12 in Denver and one employee each in Fort Collins, Colo.; Phoenix; Reno, Nev.; Sacramento, Calif.; Anchorage, Alaska; Santa Fe, N.M.; Salt Lake City; and Billings, Mont. 

This comes after Interior announced in 2017 it would streamline the NEPA process by centralizing reviews primarily among some of the highest-level Interior and BLM political appointees.

“This staff is now being scattered all over,” Ellis said. “And it’s being replaced by this political review in Washington.”

Elements of the plan were first reported by Politico last month.

Environmental reviews play a pivotal role as BLM considers things like whether to greenlight drilling for oil on public lands or approve lumber projects in national forests. One recent environmental impact statement reviewed how drilling would affect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  

“The relocation of BLM staff has bipartisan support and will fundamentally improve the Bureau’s operational efficiency and effectiveness. The assertion that these changes are to dismantle the Bureau is ignorant and out of touch with the needs of communities in the West; communities who are directly impacted by decisions currently being made more than a thousand miles away in Washington," Nick Goodwin, spokesman for Interior, said in an email to The Hill. 

Goodwin said the 2017 changes to NEPA "shifted the responsibility for NEPA compliance to the BLM's state directors, so the need for these positions to be in DC is no longer necessary. The relocation of these planning positions to State Offices will provide greater support for environmental analyses in each state's planning areas.”

The documents also show how other teams would be broken up under the plan.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation and Environmental Protection division would be roughly split in two, with half going to Salt Lake City and half in Denver.

Ellis sees this as a problem, as it would split up an interdisciplinary team designed to look at a landscape holistically, evaluating how different parts of an ecosystem interact in order to preserve various types of habitat.

“I fail to see how this will be a more efficient and effective organization,” he said. “Whoever proposed this thing knows nothing about how the organization works. They can’t or they wouldn’t have done this.”

Updated on Tuesday at 11:10 a.m.