BLM claims most staffers will willingly relocate

BLM claims most staffers will willingly relocate
© Rebecca Beitsch

In a missive to staff before the close of the year, acting Bureau of Land Management (BLM) chief William Pendley boasted about the number of staff who would be willingly going along with the agency’s controversial decision to move dozens of employees from Washington, D.C., to locations around the country.

Pendley wrote that nearly two-thirds of the 153 people who had been told they would need to relocate have said they will do so. 

“As of today, I’m encouraged and happy to advise you that nearly two-thirds of the 153 people who received MDR [management directed reassignment] letters have indicated they will relocate with their positions,” Pendley wrote in an email to staff late Friday that was obtained by The Hill.

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If two-thirds of BLM staffers agreed to move that would be an impressive figure, but the email raised eyebrows among many current and former BLM employees, particularly since many staffers have privately stated they don’t intend to move.  

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to move the bulk of its Economic Research Service to Kansas City, Mo., nearly 80 percent of staff opted to leave the agency rather than move — something that forced the agency to delay or not release a number of nearly complete reports.

That figure mirrors one reported by E&E News which found that 80 percent of BLM staff will retire or quit federal service rather than move with their posts.

BLM employees still have roughly 80 days before they must show up for work at their new post, but an internal BLM website reviewed by The Hill showed the agency would allow some staff members to extend their time in Washington in order to allow children to finish the school year or if an employee has holiday travel or medical concerns.

Much like at USDA, it’s possible staff may commit to the move on paper while continuing to look for a new job in D.C. 

“There is some fear of having an adverse action in personnel files or of being actually separated from service before finding another position,” even before employees would need to move across country, one BLM employee told The Hill.

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Pendley’s email is the closest thing to an official number the agency has given on how many staffers would move. Lawmakers have been asking for such a number, and for a cost-benefit analysis for uprooting staff and creating a new agency headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. 

Critics see the massive reassignment of all but 61 of the agency’s Washington headquarters staff as a way to dismantle an agency that often buffers against development of public lands by breaking up its teams and spreading them in different offices across the country. 

BLM has argued the move will put employees closer to the lands they manage, nearly all of which lie in the West.

“BLM Headquarters’ staff is located thousands of miles and at least two time zones away from the lands they manage,” Pendley wrote Monday in a op-ed in the Casper Star Tribune. 

However, 97 percent of the agency’s 10,000 employees are already located outside of Washington.

Pendley’s email comes as lawmakers have appropriated another $5.9 million to help with the move, despite objections from Democrats. 

The funding agreement does, however, require monthly briefings with both appropriations committees on the status of the reorganization.

“The Department has not fulfilled its obligation to fully communicate the organizational and financial details of the reorganization and relocation of the Bureau’s Washington, DC headquarters,” language in the spending bill says.

“It has not provided Bureau employees, Congress, agency stakeholders or the general public with adequate information regarding this move. Furthermore, it has not explained how it will sustain its operations and remain an effective land management agency following the anticipated loss of much of its senior management and the expected significant attrition of its workforce caused by the reorganization.” 

While the funding in this year’s spending bill largely gives the green light for BLM to proceed with the move, the Government Accountability Office earlier this month agreed to probe the move.

“The Government Accountability Office has agreed to review this move and determine if it was properly planned, analyzed, and whether it will deliver the benefits that the administration has been claiming,” said House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who requested the probe.