WASHINGTON — U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is perplexed by the Trump administration’s plan to move legislative affairs positions for a federal public lands management agency from Washington to Reno, Nev.
“Is there a national legislature forming in Reno that none of us know about?” Grijalva asked at a U.S. House hearing on Tuesday where lawmakers scrutinized the Trump administration’s plan to disperse the Bureau of Land Management to offices across the West.
The reorganization plan aims to shutter BLM’s Washington office and disperse agency employees. The administration would open a new, smaller headquarters office in Grand Junction, Colo., with 27 positions, mostly top managers at BLM. Most of the rest of the 350 BLM employees who currently work in Washington would go to various state offices across the West, including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. Another 61 BLM positions would remain in Washington.
Grijalva grilled a top Interior Department official about the plan to move legislative affairs positions from Washington to Reno, and about a plan to put the BLM person who coordinates with the State Department and foreign governments in Salt Lake City.
Wiliam Perry Pendley, the acting BLM director, told the Arizona Democrat, “It is my understanding we will have congressional liaisons [in Washington],” Pendley said, referring to Washington.
Some Democrats and public lands advocates question whether the proposal would lead to a mass exodus of skilled federal employees and create a leadership vacuum for BLM in Washington.
“What is being called a reorganization of the BLM appears to be nothing more than a poorly-veiled attempt to dismantle a federal agency,” Grijalva said. He characterized the move as part of the Trump administration’s “campaign to undermine American public lands.”
The administration wants to complete the BLM move by the end of 2020.
Pendley defended the administration’s reorganization plans on Tuesday, although he told lawmakers that the agency has not done any research or formal surveys on how the move would affect employees or how many would be interested in relocating.
The agency made a “rough estimate,” based on historical data, that 25% of affected employees might retire or separate from the agency.
‘Not trying to drain the swamp’
Pendley said he hopes employees will either accept relocation assignments or move to other open positions within the Interior Department.
“I do not want to lose a single one of them,” Pendley said of BLM career staff. “I’m not trying to drain the swamp, I’m trying to make it more possible for them to do their job.”
Pendley — a free-market activist who has previously called for dismantling federal agencies and selling public lands — took a measured tone in his first appearance before Congress as a Trump administration official. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt tapped Pendley last month as interim director for BLM. Pendley has not been confirmed by the Senate for an Interior job under this administration.
Pendley said he plans to give employees relocation assignments next week. The agency has had a hiring freeze since announcing the reorganization last month to try to account for the coming changes.
Some lawmakers think the departures could be much higher if the sweeping BLM reorganization plan goes forward. When the Agriculture Department announced plans to move two of its research agencies to Kansas City this summer, about two-thirds of agency employees said they would not move.
Republicans who support the move say it would be a benefit 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. All of those states would get a bump in staff after the reorganization.
Pendley said 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.
‘Suspicions about motivation’
But many who have worked in the agency say it will hamstring BLM to have headquarters staff spread across the country.
“BLM is a multiple-use agency, it is imperative the disciplines work together on a day-to-day basis to coordinate the policy and activities,” said Edward Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a group whose 600 members are largely retired BLM employees. “Separating and isolating staff to seperate locations will severely limit their ability to do so. We feel this plan is so radical.”
BLM is already a diffuse organization, with regional offices across the United States. Most of its employees already work outside Washington. Only about 6 percent of BLM’s approximately 9,000 employees are currently located in or aligned with the headquarters office in Washington, according to the Interior Department.
“Why are we here when virtually the entire agency is already in the field, which is where it should be?” Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, the non-voting representative for the District of Columbia, said at the hearing. “Somebody has to have the wisdom to look across the entire agency. This is an extreme proposal to essentially have almost no headquarters staff, and I cannot believe the House and Senate will look kindly on this matter.
The administration does not need an act of Congress to shift its agency structure, but Democrats could try to block funding for the move. 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.
Several Democrats at the hearing said they want to see independent analysis of the cost and benefits of the move and how it would affect the workforce
“The lingering doubts, questions and objections to this move come from a lack of prior information to the committee and Congress in terms of any analysis or justifications or rationale,” said Grijalva. “I think that suspicions about motivation in terms of why this move is going on abound and they should be, given the fact that there has been no transparency on it to this date, a full justification rationale has not been produced.”
Grijalva said the administration can expect to see more pushback: “Questions continue to linger and we are going to continue to press the point.”