House Natural Resources chair pushes for justification for BLM move while eyeing subpoena

House Natural Resources chair pushes for justification for BLM move while eyeing subpoena
© Greg Nash

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) pushed again Tuesday for the Department of the Interior to hand over documents explaining its rationale for relocating the headquarters of the nation’s public lands agency to Colorado, turning down a meeting with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt as the committee inches closer to a subpoena.

Grijalva has been asking for a cost-benefit analysis of the move since July, questioning how uprooting nearly 200 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees from D.C. makes financial or practical sense. He has previously threatened to subpoena the department for the documents.

In a Dec. 31 letter, Bernhardt offered to meet with Grijalva but did not turn over the requested analysis.

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“Your New Year’s Eve letter is part of a pattern whereby we request data and you offer to meet for a discussion. Your feelings about moving BLM headquarters to Colorado are clear and I do not require a meeting to discuss them. What I require is the supporting data you say you have, but will not provide,” Grijalva wrote Tuesday.

Interior has given some numbers to the committee, but Grijalva's staff said it fell short of the multi-page analysis expected for a major relocation.

Interior’s plans for the agency include stationing roughly 25 employees in a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., while spreading the rest among existing offices across the West. The plan would leave just 61 of the agency’s 10,000 employees in Washington.

In a copy of Bernhardt’s letter obtained by The Hill, he points to recent appropriations that “ensures the department can conclude, with no limitation, its effort to relocate” the Bureau of Land Management.

He went on to call Grijalva’s concerns “curious” since Interior has offered a personal briefing.

Interior has claimed the move would ultimately save money, with cost savings from drops in salaries and office leases balancing out the nearly $6 million in 2019 funds the agency plans to use to cover the move. Those funds will cover realtor fees, moving costs, bonuses and severance payments to those who will be booted from federal services.

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Critics — including current and former agency employees — say those cost reductions and expenses may not lead to any overall savings for the department. But their bigger concern is that the move will functionally dismantle the department.

Previous documents obtained by The Hill showed the move would split the team that reviews the environmental impacts of projects, spreading 20 employees across seven states.

Other documents show some legislative affairs staff would be moved away from D.C.

Interior has argued the move will help put employees closer to the lands they manage. Currently, 97 percent of BLM employees work outside of Washington.

The agency on Friday called Grijalva's letter "misleading."

"This letter continues to perpetuate a false narrative about our congressionally funded and supported relocation efforts that will better serve the American people and the Bureau of Land Management's multiple-use mission. The BLM relocation continues to move full speed ahead. For the chairman to suggest the Department has not cooperated with Congress is completely disingenuous,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.

Grijalva along with others have expressed concerns that the move will upset the balance in BLM’s focus on both conservation and energy development, shifting to benefit oil and gas interests.

“This stonewalling, avoidance, and denial leads to only two possible conclusions: either the Department has not done its homework on the proposed move, despite claims to the contrary, or worse, it has done its homework, and the review proves the move cannot be justified on either efficiency or fiscal grounds,” he wrote.

BLM has said it hopes to complete the move by this spring.

Updated at 2:53 p.m.