Government watchdog: Trump hasn’t justified BLM move

By: - March 12, 2020 12:06 pm

A Bureau of Land Management sign near Elbow Canyon Road and Lime Kiln Canyon Road near Mesquite, Nevada. Photo by Tony Webster | Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

WASHINGTON — The Bureau of Land Management is losing at least half of the employees designated to move west as part of the Trump administration’s controversial relocation plan, leaving a bare-bones workforce to lead the agency.

A scathing analysis of the move from the Government Accountability Office — a nonpartisan, independent congressional research agency — found that career employees are leaving the agency in droves. 

The report concludes that BLM has failed to justify the move. It also paints a picture of an agency that did little to define specifically how the relocation would improve outcomes or how they could measure success. Further, BLM has “minimally or not at all addressed key reform practices” to involve and communicate with employees and stakeholders, according to GAO. 

U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, who requested the report, said it confirms his suspicions that the move would lead to staff attrition that could hinder the agency’s ability to carry out its mission.

“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,” Grijalva said in a statement. “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.”

The massive BLM reorganization plan would shutter the bureau’s Washington office and disperse agency employees. More than 300 positions currently based in Washington would go to a new headquarters office in Grand Junction, Colo., and various other state offices across the West.

But many of the agency staff slated to uproot their lives and move are choosing to leave the federal workforce instead. Those staff departures come on top of existing vacancies, potentially leaving BLM with a much smaller workforce.

Of the 311 positions slated to move west, 132 were already vacant before the reorganization was announced, according to the GAO’s analysis of BLM data. That left 179 staff who needed to relocate. 

Only 90 of them accepted their reassignments.

Staffers in BLM’s Washington headquarters also petitioned in January to form a federal employees union, in an attempt to organize and have their voices heard in the midst of the massive reorganization.

Attempt to ‘dismantle’ the BLM?

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee decried the move at a March 10 hearing on the agency’s 2021 budget.

“Under the guise of putting staff closer to the communities it serves, the administration has done its best to dismantle the BLM,” said Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who chaired the hearing.

Michael Nedd, the BLM’s Deputy Director for Operations, came from the new office in Grand Junction for the hearing, but declined to answer any questions on the reorganization, saying he did not know any details on staffing or numbers.

“As deputy director of operations for BLM, your unwillingness to answer the most basic questions about operations of your agency, including numbers of personnel and these questions about the reorganization plan that surely you are familiar with … it’s shocking,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)  

“It is incumbent on this administration to at least provide a modicum of cooperation in the oversight process and not send forward witnesses who have knowledge but won’t share it with this committee, who give pat answers devoid of information over and over like a wind-up doll. This is a disgrace,” Huffman added. 

Some advocacy groups that work with BLM predict the number of vacancies will be even higher when it is time for people to start their jobs in their new locations. They say that in conversations with BLM employees, some have said they have provisionally accepted the reassignment positions but are still looking for new jobs that will not force them to move.

In a meeting with U.S. Senate appropriators last week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt admitted there are many vacancies. He estimated that of 173 positions, only 80 have accepted their reassignments. But he told lawmakers the agency would be “fully functional.” He said he was confident the agency would find quality candidates, including those needed to fill top positions at the new headquarters.

“I have received feedback on a number of panels doing interviews, and the caliber of people and the number of people we have applying for these jobs is off the roof and phenomenal,” Bernhardt told senators.

Since last fall, BLM has advertised 50 Washington office positions on the federal hiring website USA Jobs, including some high-level positions that the agency has re-posted several times. The agency put up a new posting this week for an assistant director position, the second time it has advertised the position.  

Subpoena threats

Grijalva followed up on the GAO report with a request for more information on the BLM move. In a letter sent March 9 to Bernhardt, Grijalva asked for 15 agency documents on the BLM move and threatened to subpoena the information if the agency does not comply.

The Natural Resources Committee voted last month to give Grijalva power to subpoena the Department of the Interior in the face of continued stonewalling from the administration. The committee has only received answers to two of the 26 formal document requests it has made on the BLM move.

The administration plans to staff its new headquarters office in Grand Junction with 39 positions, including most of the top managers at BLM. The rest of the workforce would relocate to other state offices, the National Operations Center in Denver, or the National Training Center in Phoenix. Another 60 BLM positions would remain in Washington. 

If fully staffed, Arizona would gain 34 BLM positions, according to a letter outlining the proposal that BLM sent to lawmakers last summer.

The agency announced the reorganization plan last summer with plans to complete the move by the end of this year.

The BLM has already secured office space in Grand Junction, in a building that includes Chevron and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association as its other tenants. Agency officials say that will have no effect on their work, but environmental groups have complained that the move shows BLM’s coziness with extractive industry. 

Trump administration officials tout the relocation as an opportunity to put BLM employees closer to the land they manage. The agency oversees more than 245 million acres of federal land and 800 million acres of mineral estate — primarily in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. 

But former BLM leaders, including three who led the Arizona office, say the move will actually gut the agency.

In Arizona, BLM manages 12.2 million acres of public land and 17.5 million subsurface acres. 

“We want to identify opportunities which will maximize the efficiency and service to the American people by increasing BLM’s presence close to the communities and land we serve,” BLM’s Nedd told the House Natural Resources Committee. 

BLM is already a diffuse organization, with regional offices across the United States. Most of its employees already work outside Washington. Even before the reorganization, 97 percent of BLM’s workforce was located in the western United States.

The administration also claims the move would save taxpayers $90 million over 20 years, according to an estimate from the Office of Management and Budget. Those savings will come from lower rent and reduced take-home pay for BLM employees, to account for a lower cost of living in their new offices.

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 have come to fruition in the past year. The Agriculture Department pushed to move two of its research agencies to the Kansas City region, resulting in many departures from the agency.

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington, D.C., correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based news outlets that includes Arizona Mirror.