Interior finalizes public lands agency HQ move out West over congressional objections

Interior finalizes public lands agency HQ move out West over congressional objections
© Rebecca Beitsch

Grand Junction, Colo., officially became the headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Monday, capping a move that has cost the agency nearly 70 percent of its Washington, D.C.-based employees.

An order signed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt “completes the process of relocating the federal agency headquarters closer to both the land it administers and to its employees,” the BLM said in a release.  

The move to the new headquarters leaves just 61 of the agency’s 10,000 employees in D.C. as part of a plan to move about 25 employees to the Colorado office while scattering roughly 200 at existing offices across the West.

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However, most of the BLM’s D.C.-based employees opted not to make the move, as public lands groups argued the relocation was designed to dismantle an agency that at times can stand in the way of energy development and ranching interests.

The Hill learned in June that just 68 — or about 30 percent — of the roughly 225 employees designated to move had accepted their new assignments.

“The people that make the field decisions have always been in the field, and the 3 percent of the workforce in the nation’s capital are there for a reason: because their function revolved around interacting with Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, the [nongovernmental organizations]. That's the function of the director of the department, the assistant director, and their key staff and advisors,” said Steve Ellis, who retired from the top career-level post at the BLM in 2016 after 38 years with the bureau. 

“They will not be able to do that effectively from Grand Junction, Colo., and on top of that, they lost a lot of people. A lot of good, seasoned career people are gone,” he added.

The relocation has proved controversial since it was announced in July of last year, particularly among Democratic lawmakers from the West.

“The BLM’s poorly-executed relocation effort is a transparent attempt to weaken the agency and undermine the public servants who work there—or used to work there. There’s little to celebrate here. The Trump administration has hollowed out an entire agency to score a political point. Shedding a generation of civil service leadership does not help the American public, and I fear we’ll be bearing the consequences for years to come,” Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallLWCF modernization: Restoring the promise OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency MORE (D-N.M.), a vocal critic of the move, told The Hill in a statement.

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Documents reviewed by The Hill found the relocation would move many jobs seemingly tied to the D.C. area, putting legislative affairs staff and a senior policy analyst in Reno, Nev. Meanwhile, the team that assesses the environmental impacts of major projects on the nation’s public lands would be split up and spread across seven states. 

“Having leadership in Grand Junction and their staff shotgunned around the West — that is not a model for efficiency,” Ellis said.

Interior also had trouble filling some of the top posts in the new headquarters and elsewhere.

Grand Junction, a roughly 60,000-person town in Colorado’s Western Slope, was a surprising choice to some. Though it is located in an area with many public lands, it is also about four hours from any major airport.

“This relocation strengthens our relationship with communities in the West by ensuring decisionmakers are living and working closer to the lands they manage for the American people,” Bernhardt said in a release.

The financials behind the move were a source of questions from lawmakers, both in terms of how the agency would pay for it and whether a cost-benefit analysis would back the decision to uproot staffers.

A cost-benefit analysis later obtained by The Hill was just two pages and lacked much of the detailed analysis that would typically back a large move.

It also did not consider plans by the previous administration to move BLM employees to the Interior South building once the agency’s current lease on M Street SW expired, leaving the government stuck paying a higher rate.

“This is a highly incomplete basis for informing a policy decision,” Craig Thornton, an economist and president of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis, told The Hill at the time.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report requested by House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-A.Z.) would later reach much of the same conclusion.

The 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.”

Grijalva was one of the move's most vocal critics, holding a hearing on the agency's plans and asking the BLM to turn over documents tied to the move.

“The Trump administration didn’t ‘relocate’ the Bureau of Land Management — they dismantled it. In the process, they fulfilled their goal of draining the agency of dedicated experts who know how to manage our public lands for the public good. Now they’ll work to sell off our precious national landscapes to Trump’s friends and put polluting industries above the health and safety of communities. I opposed this dismantling from the start, and I’m not celebrating as the administration continues to undermine BLM’s institutional knowledge and destroy our public lands,” he said.

Ellis worries BLM staff will be isolated due to the new location, cut off from meeting with other agencies while power is centralized within the Interior secretary's office.

He said he’s seen the Trump administration move away from the agency’s multiple use mission and instead place pressure on field offices to favor oil and gas development.

“It really flies in the face of the ‘getting decisions closer to the ground’ talking point they’re using,” he said. “There’s some politics here, obviously.”