Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation

After the Trump administration announced its plans to relocate the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) headquarters to Colorado, more than 87 percent of Washington-based employees decided to leave the agency, according to new numbers released by the Biden administration.

The figures show that following a July 2019 announcement the Department of the Interior would uproot the majority of BLM employees, just 41 agreed to relocate, while a staggering 287 either retired or left the agency before the end of 2020.

The flight of employees came after Trump’s BLM rolled out a plan that would leave just 60 of the agency's 10,000 employees in Washington, D.C., establishing a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., while spreading the majority of Washington-based staff to various offices across the West.

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“The bureau lost a tremendous amount of expertise; those were very seasoned people,” said Steve Ellis, who held the highest-ranking career position at the BLM under the Obama administration. “The numbers confirmed my worst fears. I hope we can get some of them back.”

Critics saw the move as a way to dismantle an agency that at times stands in the way of development on public lands, particularly for the fossil fuel industry.

Previous reporting from The Hill found the move would split apart a key public lands team, spreading across seven states those who review the environmental impacts of government decisions. 

A senior policy analyst, several legislative affairs specialists and a public affairs specialist were among the positions of note shown in the documents to be heading to Reno, Nev.

Democrats frequently questioned why Grand Junction — a town of 60,000 four hours away from any major airport — would be the site of the BLM’s top officers.

The move was first announced by then-Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms MORE (R-Colo.) as he prepared for a tough reelection campaign.

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But as the Biden administration puts its own stamp on the BLM, it’s not yet clear what it plans to do with the Grand Junction headquarters, where 40 employees currently work, or the rest of the employees based out West.

“The Interior Department’s new leadership will work with BLM career staff to understand the ramifications of the headquarters move and determine if any adjustments need to be made," the agency said in a statement. "We are committed to engaging with a number of stakeholders through this process, including Tribes and Members of Congress."

“BLM’s important mission and the communities served by the agency deserve a deliberate and thoughtful process," it added.

Ellis advised that such a process should be handled “surgically.”

“It was a tough four years to be a federal employee,” he said. “Just because the last administration treated them badly, you don't want to do that again.”