Reorganizing the Bureau of Land Management and moving a sizable contingent of employees from the nation’s capital to the Western United States, federal officials say, will save the government money and connect the bureau’s workers more with the land they oversee.
But environmentalists are decrying the move as a step toward toning down the agency and the precursor to a sell-off of public lands in the American West.
Under the reorganization, announced earlier this summer, 61 of the bureau’s positions would remain in the Washington, D.C., area to manage core tasks such as information requests, legislative affairs and budgetary matters, said Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management. More than 200 BLM positions now in Washington would be divvied out among the Western states where the bulk of the BLM’s work takes place.
For example, Nevada’s hard rock mineral industry means many workers from the BLM’s mining section will relocate here, while many workers focused on rangeland issues will move to Idaho due to that state’s significant grazing lands, Balash said. Twenty-seven positions, including the BLM director, the bureau’s deputy director of operations, assistant directors and their staff will move to Grand Junction, Colo., in the newly established BLM headquarters.
These moves will save money and better connect the bureau to the Western lands it oversees, Balash said. “It costs less and it delivers a better product, if you will,” he said.
In a letter to Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, Balash said the savings would come via lower locality adjustment pay rates for federal workers no longer in Washington, cheaper office rental rates (as little as $14 per square foot in some Western locales versus $50 per square foot in Washington) reduced travel expenses and reduced loss of time for travel. All told, Balash said, the payback over time would reach $50 million.
But the move to Grand Junction and points West has raised multiple concerns in environmentalist circles, including that the shift could lead to “brain drain” in the organization as D.C. urbanites balk at relocating to the West and that the move itself is a step toward the federal government transferring land to states or private entities.
“This is clearly part of a broad, orchestrated attempt to hobble the Bureau of Land Management and make it completely subservient to extractive industries,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Donnelly said that he was not surprised the BLM picked Grand Junction, a city surrounded by vast deposits of oil shale — sedimentary rock from which oil can be extracted — as Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who oversees the BLM, worked as a lobbyist for major oil companies in the past.
The move also comes after the appointment of William Perry Pendley as acting director of the bureau. Pendley has long been an outspoken proponent of selling off federal land, a position that Donnelly and others see as antithetical to the mission of the BLM.
“They have put the burglars in charge of the bank here,” Donnelly said.
Balash said the BLM, an institution whose “very purpose is to manage public lands,” had no plans to rid itself of any of its property.
“We are not considering or willing to entertain any idea of disposing large swaths of public land,” Balash said. "Those lands belong to the American people and it’s our job to manage them, not only for the current generation but for future generations,” he said.
Donnelly, however, sees the move as a step toward the federal government ridding itself of public lands. Nevada has more BLM-managed land than many other states, so any shift in the agency could have potential rippling effects throughout the state.
“The move to Grand Junction should not be viewed in isolation,” Donnelly said. “It is part of a large coordinated attempt … ultimately to sell off our public lands.”
Brian Beffort, the director of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that he didn’t understand why scientific experts would be moved from the city in which political decisions were made.
“I think it could be devastating for the BLM and for public land management across the West,” he said.
Bob Abbey, a past director of the bureau, was critical of the plan, calling it “one of the most ridiculous proposals” he’d ever seen.
Abbey expressed concerns with the move, stating that the shift from the metro hub of D.C. could cause the BLM to lose some of its workforce.
“I would anticipate a good number of (people) not actually moving because of the dual career status of many of those people and their families,” he said.
Balash, however, said the situation should be looked at in reverse, as he said it can be difficult to attract qualified workers from Western states to D.C. A move to Grand Junction, he said, could help attract those potential workers who want to remain in the West.
“The best of the best, if you will, the cream of the crop — we’re having a hard time getting them to come out to the East,” he said.
He said the move to the West could also place senior leadership closer to people working their way up through the organization, which would ensure that the new generation of workers received more exposure to those with institutional knowledge.
“There is a very significant posting of (people) bureau-wide that are reaching retirement age,” he said, stressing the need for transfer of institutional knowledge.
But Abbey sees the step as moving the public lands away from the political nexus of the country. “I just think, again, the general goal is to diminish the importance of these public lands, at least in Washington, D.C,” he said.
Beffort said he was disappointed in the amount of effort being put into a move that he said could harm lands in Nevada and elsewhere.
“It makes me sad to see how much work the Trump administration is expending (on this) and how much that could potentially harm public lands across the West,” he said.