WASHINGTON – The Trump administration revealed sweeping plans on Tuesday to dismantle and disperse the Bureau of Land Management, sending its current headquarters staff to more than half a dozen offices across the West and establishing a small new headquarters office in Grand Junction, Colo.
The massive reorganization, as outlined in a letter to lawmakers Tuesday, would relocate the majority of the 550 BLM employees who currently work in the Washington, D.C., headquarters. Most of them would go to various state offices across the West. The new Grand Junction headquarters would start with 27 positions, mostly top managers at BLM.
Colorado lawmakers praised the BLM move, but key House Democrats with oversight over the Interior Department are pushing back against the proposal.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Tucson), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Interior has not given enough explanation and justification to his committee for the reorganization.
“The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward,” Grijalva said in a statement. “The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here.”
The move fits into a larger push from the Trump administration to downsize and diffuse power outside of Washington. Shortly after Trump took office, he asked his agencies to look for ways to reorganize, with a directive to streamline the executive branch.
Some of those efforts are coming to fruition this summer. The Agriculture Department is pushing to move two research agencies to Kansas City by September. The White House also wants to eliminate the federal personnel agency, the Office of Personnel Management. And Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has also said he is also considering a move of the U.S. Geological Survey to Denver.
The administration does not need an act of Congress to shift its agency structure, but Democrats could try to block funding for the moves next year. The spending bill that the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee approved earlier this summer does not allocate money for the reorganization. The Senate has not completed its spending measure.
House Interior Appropriations Chairwoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said she still has “serious questions” about the BLM move after discussing it with Interior Secretary Bernhardt. Interior has not justified the move, its benefits or the costs involved, McCollum said.
“This decision was not made with advance consultation with Congress and the scrutiny and forethought deserving of any action impacting our public lands,” McCollum said.
She said the administration should instead focus on appointing a BLM director – which the agency has lacked for the duration of this administration – before it “spends millions of taxpayer dollars playing musical chairs with employees’ lives.”
‘Shifting critical leadership’
The BLM has a sweeping portfolio, managing more than 245 million acres of federal land and 800 million acres of mineral estate — primarily in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. All of those states would get a bump in staff after the reorganization.
Bernhardt said the plan would put more BLM employees closer to the land they oversee and the people who use it.
“Shifting critical leadership positions and supporting staff to western states — where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located — is not only a better management system, it is beneficial to the interest of the American public in these communities, cities, counties and states,” Bernhardt said in a statement.
BLM is already a diffuse organization, with regional offices across the United States. Most of its employees already work outside Washington. Only about 6% of BLM’s approximately 9,000 employees are currently located in or aligned with the headquarters office in Washington, according to the Interior Department.
Currently, BLM employees in Washington work on a host of issues, from executive leadership and human resources to budget issues and information technology.
Under the new plan, about 60 BLM employees would stay in Washington – mostly positions that work on budgetary and legislative issues and public relations.
Hundreds of other positions would move to various BLM state offices. Arizona would gain 34 positions at the Arizona State Office and the National Training Center in Phoenix. The office would also receive five additional positions.
The plan to relocate BLM has its roots in Colorado’s congressional delegation. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), whose district includes Grand Junction, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) both claimed some credit for the move. A statement from Gardner’s office described him as the “chief architect” of the plan. Tipton said in a statement that the move “originated from a series of meetings and townhalls in my district,” along with collaboration on all levels of government.
Gardner was elected in a Republican wave in 2014, but is now considered the most vulnerable incumbent GOP senator heading into 2020. He has been pushing for BLM to move to his home state. He proposed legislation in 2017 calling for a move, he asked about it at confirmation hearings, and he touted it at meetings.
“This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands, and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government,” Gardner said of the move.
Over the past year, other Colorado lawmakers also have said BLM should consider a move to Colorado, including Democrats Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Ed Perlmutter and Rep. Jason Crow.
In a statement Tuesday, Bennet said he’d supported the relocation since 2017, saying that the move “should lead to improved decision making and increased resources for our public lands.”
He also said the details of the plan suggest more work must be done “to permanently secure BLM headquarters in Grand Junction.”
But environmental advocates and former Interior officials say the move could hamstring the agency.
“This isn’t an effort to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, it’s an attempt to dismantle it altogether,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Center for Western Priorities. Rokalka said the move is a “PR stunt” that could drain Interior of expertise.
Critics say that moving employees away from Washington could diminish BLM’s ability to complete its mission. Budgets are set in the nation’s capital, and BLM officials there regularly meet with lawmakers, stakeholders and other administration officials, like the Secretary of Interior, Office of Management and Budget and White House officials.
“It’s neither practical nor smart to have the national leadership of BLM 2,000 miles away from their bosses,” said David Hayes, who was the Interior Department’s deputy secretary during the Obama administration.”BLM already is a very decentralized organization with very close ties to the lands and communities that it serves.”