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BLM exodus: Agency loses half of DC staff slated for relocation

BLM exodus: Agency loses half of DC staff slated for relocation
© Greg Nash

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has lost more than half of its Washington-based employees who were slated to move out West as the agency pushes ahead with a controversial plan to relocate staff.

New internal numbers from the Interior Department obtained by The Hill show 69 employees have left the agency rather than accept the new assignment. Another 18 left after the plans were announced but before they could be reassigned.

Those 87 employees outnumber the 80 who have agreed to the move.

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The figures are at odds with the ones referenced in December by acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley, who said in an email that roughly two-thirds of staffers had agreed to move.

“This is a huge brain drain,” said Steve Ellis, who retired from BLM’s top career-level post in 2016. “There is a lot of really solid expertise walking out the door.”

The Interior Department, which oversees BLM, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The BLM move would uproot nearly all of the agency’s dwindling Washington staff out West, leaving just 61 of 10,000 employees in the nation’s capital.

Under the relocation plan, roughly 25 employees would work at BLM’s new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., while another 150 or so would be placed in the agency’s existing offices out West.

The new internal figures show the agency is experiencing an exodus similar to the ones at two U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies. One of the two agencies, the Economic Research Service, lost nearly 80 percent of its staff last year and had to cancel several projects as a result.

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BLM first announced its Western relocation plans in July 2019, sparking objections from Democratic lawmakers and condemnation from agency retirees who argued that career staffers would flee the agency and leave BLM with a dearth of experience on top of its numerous vacancies.

In a meeting with Senate appropriators Wednesday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told lawmakers he was confident the agency would find quality candidates to replace the departing staffers, including those needed to fill top positions at the new headquarters.

“The caliber of people and number of people applying for these positions is through the roof and phenomenal,” he said.

But Ellis said the relocation “removes BLM from the sphere of direct influence in the nation’s capital and critically weakens the agency’s ability for career leadership and their staff to collaborate across disciplines and work closely with other key agencies.”

“The administration is solving a problem that isn’t there while creating new ones. It will weaken the agency by marginalizing leadership in a relatively small western community,” he added.

BLM is hoping to complete the move by the summer. BLM employees have told The Hill that some staffers have accepted reassignment but plan to keep looking until they have to report to their new location.

Previous reporting from The Hill found the move would split apart a key team that reviews the environmental effects of major land decisions, spreading them across seven states.

The move is one potential topic for a subpoena from the House Natural Resources Committee, which gave its chairman subpoena power last month.

“The Trump administration is destroying the Bureau of Land Management by mistreating its staff and politicizing its mission and then lying to Congress and the public about the damage it’s causing. This is what happens when you put fossil fuel industry lobbyists and anti-public lands extremists in charge of government agencies,” Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva said in a statement Thursday to The Hill.

“We can expect more loss of expertise that will hurt public lands for years to come,” he added.