Trump team’s relocation plan will make BLM an industry servant, critics warn

By: - July 18, 2019 6:06 am

Black Rock Desert in Nevada (BLM photo)

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration revealed sweeping plans this week to dismantle and disperse the Bureau of Land Management, sending its current headquarters staff to more than half a dozen offices across the Western states, including Nevada, while establishing a small new headquarters office in Grand Junction, Colorado.

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. A new Grand Junction, Colorado headquarters would start with 27 positions, mostly top managers at BLM.

Nevada would gain 32 positions now based in Washington and authority to hire another 17 additional positions for the state office.

Key House Democrats with oversight over the Interior Department are pushing back against the proposal.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), 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.”

A spokesperson for Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said the senator “has serious concerns” about the plans.

“While the Senator supports job creation in the State of Nevada and generally agrees that more agency resources on the ground can help lead to better management of our public lands, the proposed reorganization has called for the splitting of Nevada into two separate regions, the dislocation of current federal workers, and opens an enormous potential for chaos in the management of critical public lands for the State of Nevada,” said Cortez Masto’s communications director, Ryan King.

Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, whose 2nd congressional district contains millions of acres of BLM land, Wednesday said via email from his office that “DOI contacted us yesterday about the proposal and said if we have questions to call, so we anticipate calling to schedule a time for them to come by and brief us further on the issue. I’m interested, but we have some homework to do.”

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. 

“This is how you dismantle an agency,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, who warned the move would make public lands policy more susceptible to extractive industry pressure.

The vast majority of BLM employees are already in Western states, Donnelly noted. Agency employees the Trump administration wants to move out of Washington are those who interface with Congress and the Department. If relocated to state offices, they will answer to state directors, who in turn are often pressured by hectoring members of Congress with close ties to industry.

The Trump proposal is about more than moving staff, Donnelly said. It’s about “making the BLM subservient to extractive industries.”

This is not the first time the Trump administration has tried to move federal employees out of Washington and closer to the industries those employees are charged with monitoring or regulating. 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.

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner is the self-described “chief architect” of the plan. 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 Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, a presidential candidate who has thus far mostly failed to capture the attention of early state voters in Nevada or elsewhere.

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.”

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.”

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Nevada Current.