In exchange with Lee, Haaland noncommittal on BLM HQ

BLM Grand Junction office building
This office building in Grand Junction, CO is currently the headquarters for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Existing tenants in the building include Chevron and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. (Photo: BLM)
BLM Grand Junction office building
This office building in Grand Junction, CO is currently the headquarters for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Other tenants include Chevron and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. (Photo: BLM)

In her first congressional hearing as the leader of the Interior Department, Secretary Deb Haaland fielded questions from members of a U.S. House spending panel Tuesday on the major conservation and energy initiatives that President Joe Biden has outlined.

She was noncommittal about some contentious and high-profile items of deep interest to Western states, like the pause on new oil and gas leases, and the permanent location of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. 

Nevada Democratic Rep. Susie Lee asked for an update on the location of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. The Trump administration moved the headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colo., last year. 

BLM manages nearly 50 million acres in Nevada, roughly two-thirds of the land in the state. Lee said the issue was “incredibly important” to Nevada and called the bureau “the gatekeeper for any type of land-use decisions” there.

Haaland didn’t disclose any decisions about the future location of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. The move affected nearly 300 BLM career staff, with many of those positions still vacant, Haaland said. 

Lee noted the loss of staff and a “significant loss of institutional memory and experience” associated with moving the HQ to Grand Junction.

Haaland said the department was “still gathering information” that would instruct the decision about whether to keep the headquarters in Colorado or return it to Washington. Haaland noted that the move upset the bureau’s operations, and that she wanted to avoid a repetition.

“It was sort of an upset when they moved across the country, and the last thing we want to do is cause that again,” Haaland said. “So we’re being very careful about how we’re approaching it.” 

The Trump administration and many Republicans from the West said the move would help the BLM better manage the lands it’s responsible for, more than 99% of which is west of the Mississippi River.

The BLM maintains field offices throughout the country and most employees were stationed in the West, even when its base was in Washington. 

The focus of Tuesday’s hearing was Haaland urging the subcommittee to send her department robust spending for next fiscal year and longer-term jobs programs. 

Increased funding for Interior in fiscal 2022, which begins Oct. 1, could help combat climate change, speed a transition to clean energy and provide resources to Native American communities, Haaland told the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Congress could also take a first step toward funding a Civilian Climate Corps and other Interior-related programs that are part of the jobs and infrastructure proposal the administration released earlier this month. 

“This nation has the opportunity of a lifetime to strengthen our country, fight climate change and improve our way of life for generations to come,” she said. “We need both a strong annual budget for the department and the president’s jobs plan.”

Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American Cabinet secretary, pledged greater federal cooperation with tribes. 

While federal agencies have at points throughout their history engaged in only nominal consultation with tribes, Biden has committed to meaningful tribal consultation on issues that affect them, she said.

The administration’s initial budget request called for $17.4 billion in spending for Interior programs, a 16% increase for the department over the last year of President Donald Trump’s administration. A more detailed request is expected later this spring.

In the absence of specific line items, Republicans on the panel raised concerns about two of the administration’s major initiatives at the department: its goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030 and its pause of new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands.

“The 30 by 30 rule, that scares the life out of us in the West,” Rep. Chris Stewart, (R-Utah), told Haaland, adding that he assumed most of the acreage needed to reach that goal would come from Western states.

Subcommittee ranking Republican David Joyce, of Ohio, said he worried the 30 by 30 plan would block natural resource extraction and “sustainable, responsible use” on large swaths of land throughout the country, and that the acreage goal would mean a focus on vast Western lands and dissuade people in other parts of the country from doing their part for conservation.

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler is a national correspondent for States Newsroom.