Bureau of Land Management staff face relocation or resignation as agency moves west

Bureau of Land Management staff face relocation or resignation as agency moves west
© Rebecca Beitsch

Employees at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were given reassignment letters Tuesday as the agency marches toward its relocation across the West, giving staff 30 days to accept the move or face being booted from the federal workforce.

The delivery of the letters means BLM employees will begin moving over the next four months, cementing a controversial plan that spreads about 300 Washington-based staffers across various offices out west and leaves just 61 of the bureau’s 10,000 employees in the nation’s capital.

The Public Lands Foundation, a group of BLM retirees, said the agency “will be effectively kneecapped” by the relocation as teams are split up and spread across different offices. 

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A copy of the letter obtained by The Hill makes clear that employees who do not choose to move could lose their jobs. Current BLM employees said the agency has not done enough to help employees who wish to remain in D.C. find another job elsewhere within the Department of the Interior as promised.

“If you do not accept this directed geographic reassignment, you may be subject to a removal from federal service,” the letter reads. 

In other emails and appearances, BLM acting chief William Pendley has been less direct, instead focusing on a desire to retain current staff as the agency shifts resources west.

At an appearance before the House Natural Resources Committee in September, Pendley said BLM would help those who do not want to take “more fulfilling jobs out West” by finding them roles elsewhere within Interior.

“For employees unable to make the move, we hope to find each a position in the Department of Interior family,” Pendley said.

A similar commitment was made to BLM staff in an October email

“If you wish to continue working in the Washington, D.C., area, we will help you identify positions in the BLM or the Department,” he said.

Though Tuesday’s letter and others have repeatedly offered the assistance of a human resources transition team, BLM staff said they haven’t found the service particularly helpful.

“Interior is supposed to have a process where BLM employees have first priority for placement, but I haven’t heard much of that,” one staffer told The Hill. “They haven’t been very good at working with people or very effective at getting people’s concerns addressed. They haven't come out with all the information.”

An official for BLM said it is “working hard to make sure every affected employee has information on all options available.”

That includes career counseling, résumé-writing and interviewing workshops, and “identification of vacancies for interested and qualified employees within the BLM nationwide and within the Department of Interior in the DC area.”

The agency, however, appears poised to lose a number of the employees Perry said he hopes to retain.

“There’s one or two going away parties a week,” another BLM employee told The Hill this week. After the relocation plans were announced in July, “people have gotten aggressive about job hunting if they cannot move.”

A similar relocation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows how big moves can gut an agency. 

USDA’s economic research service had to delay or cancel some reports after nearly 80 percent of its staff left the agency rather than relocate to Kansas City. 

At BLM, staffers said employees aren’t opposed to living out West — many rose through the ranks at the bureau from jobs out in the field in the same places where staff are being relocated now. But many don’t want to interrupt children's schooling or have spouses give up good jobs.

Perry acknowledged those difficulties in a separate staff-wide email sent late Tuesday. 

"This move will be beneficial for the citizens we serve, the westerners who live amidst the lands we manage, and the organization as a whole. For those directly affected, however, this is a challenging time," he wrote.

Employees who do choose to move are being offered a 25 percent incentive bonus and 90 days to move, while those who don’t accept the reassignment could receive a voluntary separation incentive payment. However, it’s not clear the department has the funding to offer either type of payment. Lawmakers have thus far blocked funding for the move in next year’s budget.

 “The fact that our bipartisan Interior Appropriations bill includes no new funding for the misguided BLM relocation is an unequivocal message to the administration that it needs to press pause and work to address the concerns of members on both sides of the aisle," Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA Overnight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons Senate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections MORE (D-N.M.), one of the lawmakers who oversees the agency’s budget, told The Hill in a statement. "I will continue to work in a bipartisan way on this issue, because the Trump administration should not be deliberately weakening the BLM and upending the lives of the dedicated staff who work there.”

Updated at 5:37 p.m.