Energy & Environment

Government watchdog blasts limited planning behind BLM relocation

Rebecca Beitsch

A government watchdog found the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) largely failed to justify relocating nearly all of its Washington-based employees and scattering them across the West, delivering fuel to Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) as he weighs a subpoena on the subject.

A scathing report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) paints a picture of an agency that did little to determine how the move would improve the agency, excluded employees from having a say in the process and failed to do a proper analysis on a number of factors. 

The report makes clear that a 17-page July letter to Congress was the agency’s “implementation plan” for the move, something GAO said “does not include key milestones or metrics against which to assess progress,” nor any deliverables. 

The BLM relocation would place 27 employees in a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., while scattering about another 150 staffers in existing offices across the West. The move would leave just 61 of the public lands agency’s 10,000 employees in Washington.

“This report reveals what many of us were very concerned about – that this relocation was poorly-planned and ill-advised, and that the Trump administration didn’t think through how this would impact people’s lives or the effectiveness of the BLM in the short or long term,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who has pushed BLM for information on the move, said in a statement.

“I fear this unnecessary and irresponsible institutional damage will have serious ramifications for the agency’s ability to carry out its essential mission for years to come.”

The agency describes the move as an effort to get employees closer to the lands they manage. However, critics see it as an effort to undermine an agency that can at times stand in the way of energy development.

The relocation has spurred a mass exodus of employees, as documents obtained by The Hill Thursday show that more than half of the D.C.-based employees slated for reassignment have left the agency instead of moving.

“This administration has created an intentionally abusive and cruel relationship between the federal government and its employees,” Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement Friday. 

“BLM has already lost dozens of key employees and the administration, like an incompetent con man, is desperately spinning it as a great opportunity to find new people.”

In a response to GAO from late February, BLM acting Director William Pendley defended his agency’s actions, arguing the move was based on “data and evidence” and that employees declined to move in only a “handful of cases.”

The report questions BLM’s decision to place the new headquarters in Grand Junction, a town of 60,000 on Colorado’s Western slope, located about four hours from any major city.

GAO said the agency “did not describe a methodology for choosing a location for BLM’s new headquarters” and did not “explain how information would be evaluated or how BLM would rank factors to select the preferred location.”

BLM’s move was first announced by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) who faces a tough reelection battle this year and may need to rely on support from the more Republican-leaning Western part of the state.

The report also dings the agency for failing to do a proper cost-benefit analysis.

Previous reporting from The Hill found the cost-benefit analysis for the move was just two pages — something experts called a “highly incomplete basis for informing a policy decision.”

GAO said the analysis “did not contain complete information, such as the cost of travel to Washington, D.C., from all the new staff locations, or factors such as the effect of staff relocation on productivity.”

The report also criticized BLM for failing to meaningfully engage with its employees while planning the relocation.

Documents “do not indicate that staff other than the executive leadership team were consulted or engaged with during this formulation process,” the report says.

BLM pushed back against that assessment.

“Multiple meetings were held with employees of the department and stakeholders at which time the possibility of the move West was publicly known and the key goal of moving employees closer to the public lands they manage was well understood,” Pendley wrote in his response. 

Nearly all of the U.S.’s public lands lie in the West, but 97 percent of BLM employees are already located in that region.

BLM repeatedly refused to supply information to GAO, echoing earlier complaints from Grijalva that his committee was often ignored by the agency.

“Anyone who wants our land management agencies to be functional in the future needs to recognize the seriousness of what Secretary [David] Bernhardt, Acting Director Pendley, and their subordinates are doing,” Grijalva said.

“This administration cannot be trusted with the levers of power, and what it’s doing to BLM will be repeated again and again the longer this president remains in office.”

Tags Bureau of Land Management Cory Gardner Tom Udall
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