'Gutted' Interior agency moves out West with top posts unfilled

'Gutted' Interior agency moves out West with top posts unfilled
© Greg Nash

The Interior Department is struggling to fill top positions at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) despite assurances from officials that the agency's relocation from Washington to Colorado is helping recruit top talent, according to an analysis by The Hill.

Interior Department leaders have told Congress that moving the public lands bureau to new headquarters out West has helped recruit more and better qualified candidates than ever before. But a review of more than 100 job postings finds the agency has failed to fill several top posts just a month before it plans to finish the relocation.

BLM has yet to hire four of the agency’s seven division directors. Each of the positions has been reposted after failing to hire a candidate.

ADVERTISEMENT

Other top postings, like a division chief to manage the wild horse and burro program in Reno, Nev., have been reposted twice.

“If you have to re-advertise jobs, that’s a flag that either you’re not getting enough applicants or you’re not getting enough qualified applicants,” said Steve Ellis, who retired in 2016 after holding the highest career-level post at the BLM. “It generally telegraphs you have a weak list of candidates.”

The relocation plans initially aimed to move some 220 D.C.-based positions to Grand Junction, Colo., while scattering the rest across existing offices and leaving just 61 employees in the agency’s Washington office. But figures provided to The Hill show that just 68 employees have agreed to make the move.

The agency must now replace more than 100 BLM employees who have chosen to leave the agency rather than relocate.

The difficulty in finding top level candidates contrasts with what Interior officials have told Congress.

“The caliber of people and number of people applying for these positions is through the roof and phenomenal,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told senators in March.

ADVERTISEMENT

BLM has said it hopes to complete the move to Colorado in July, a timeline that could be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. And given the vacancies in the agency’s top echelons, employees who make the move may arrive without several directors in place.

The agency refused to release figures detailing how many of the 68 employees have already arrived at their new posts.

BLM also did not answer questions about how many of its new job postings have been filled. 

“At this time—unless an employee has an extenuating circumstance such as health—all of the employees who have accepted geographic reassignment are scheduled to be moved or be in the process of moving by early July,” BLM spokesman Derrick Henry told The Hill by email.

“Due to privacy concerns, we are unable to provide specifics regarding any employees who may have requested an extension due to coronavirus,” he added.

BLM’s relocation, announced in July, is meant to bring government workers closer to the lands they manage, even though the bulk of the agency’s 10,000 employees are already stationed in Western states. Critics see the relocation as a way to dismantle an agency that can sometimes stand in the way of development on public lands.

The numbers behind the move have been a moving target. The 222 positions originally slated for relocation dwindled to 155 by the time BLM sent letters in November to its employees outlining where they would be headed.

In March, The Hill learned that just 80 of the employees who received letters agreed to move. That figure has since dropped to 68.

“Some of those numbers might be people that indicated that they would move but I think that some of those people are still hunting for other jobs. And if in fact they find another job, they would end up not moving at all,” said Ray Brady, a former BLM employee now on the board of the Public Lands Foundation, which has opposed the move.

“So I think the 68 is a higher number than the number of people that will actually end up moving,” he said.

The upcoming presidential election may also give some employees pause, unsure if a change in administration would mean abandoning the relocation plans. Congressional Democrats have been opposed to BLM’s plans.

But critics say the flight of longtime BLM employees combined with the more than 100 new jobs posted will allow the Trump administration to completely overhaul the agency regardless of November’s outcome.

“They've gutted the Washington office. We’ve lost a lot of seasoned talent,” Ellis said, adding that the agency will struggle to stay relevant with such a diminished D.C. presence.

But he also sees the move — which can cost tens of thousands of dollars per employee — as a waste of money.

“The millions of taxpayer dollars being spent on this reorganization would have been better utilized on such things as hiring seasonal and permanent employees in field offices, most of which are sorely understaffed, and located in smaller, rural communities in the West," he said. "That millions of dollars in federal payroll would have been especially helpful to these rural communities now given the current economic downturn.”