3 big questions surround BLM headquarters move back to D.C.

By Scott Streater | 09/20/2021 12:43 PM EST

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Friday announced that the agency will return the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Washington, D.C., undoing the Trump administration’s relocation of the agency to Grand Junction, Colo. Jennifer Yachnin/E&E News

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s announcement that the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters is moving back to Washington, D.C., pleased many employees, even as the lack of details left other staffers uneasy about the bureau’s future, according to interviews with a handful of career officials.

Haaland said during an online announcement to BLM staff late Friday that she wanted to tell employees first about moving the national headquarters — which has been located in Grand Junction, Colo., since August 2020 — as part of an effort to be transparent, even though so many details about the plan remain unresolved (E&E News PM, Sept. 17).

"My primary concern has always been for your well-being and to restore the effectiveness of the BLM’s operations," Haaland told employees during the internal online session.

"I appreciate all of the conversations I’ve had with so many of you and your team," she added. "The open dialogue helped us as we chart a path forward, which we’re ready to share with you today."

But Haaland did not provide many details about the plan — which involves converting the current headquarters in Grand Junction into a Western hub — nor did she indicate which senior leaders or staff will be moved to D.C., or the timeline for doing so.

The lack of detail concerns some BLM employees, who told E&E News they have a lot of questions about how splitting the headquarters between Colorado and Washington will affect their work and the bureau’s overall operations.

One employee called the online session a "very 10,000-foot-level announcement" and "a political announcement for a political decision."

"We are numb to the lack of meaningful information," the employee said.

But overall, employees appear to be "incredibly happy and excited" by the plan to move the headquarters back to Washington, a separate senior BLM official told E&E News on condition they not be identified because they are not authorized the discuss the matter publicly.

"There’s a lot of work ahead for everyone to make this decision a reality, but it’s something we’re all looking forward to doing," the official said. "It truly feels like a first step in rebuilding the bureau."

Haaland acknowledged during her roughly six-minute prepared statement to employees Friday that there are a lot of unresolved issues.

"I know you will have many more questions about what these changes will mean for BLM and for you," she said. "We will continue to provide organizational details in the weeks and months ahead."

In the meantime, they will continue pressing forward.

Nada Culver, BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, said during the online session that the bureau plans to establish an employee steering committee "representing all parts of the BLM." This group will advise the Interior Department on the move, and will receive updates from the department that it can share with staff.

In addition, Culver said that a separate leadership team would be established to focus on the headquarters move, and that it will work with the employee committee and outside stakeholders "on next steps."

"We know you’re anxious to hear more," said Culver, who is currently performing the duties of BLM director.

Haaland added, "Of course there are many more steps to take."

Here are three of the biggest questions that need to be answered in the coming months.

What’s really changing?

Haaland made it clear to staff on Friday that the national office is now in Washington.

Haaland derided the way the Trump administration handled the "destructive" move to Grand Junction, saying it "scattered employees and programs across the West," removing senior leadership from top policymakers in Congress and within the Interior Department.

Thus, she said, moving the headquarters back to Washington "is an important step forward to rebuilding high-level functionality for the BLM, and to ensure that leadership is centrally available for engagement with Indian tribes, with Congress, with other agency leadership, and its many stakeholders."

Observers, both within BLM and outside the bureau, say there are specific moves to watch for if Interior wants to ensure the move back to Washington is not just a symbolic gesture.

Among them: Virtually all the senior officials — including the bureau’s two deputy directors, the assistant directors who oversee the major BLM departments and their deputy directors — will need to be in Washington, with few if any in Grand Junction.

All of these positions need to be moved to "the sphere of direct influence in the nation’s capital," said Steve Ellis, a former BLM deputy director of operations during the Obama administration.

"Hopefully, the move back will at least include the senior career positions," Ellis said.

The assistant directors of the six directorates "should be in Washington" if the move is to be effective, said Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM retirees’ group that supports placing the headquarters in Washington.

Less clear is role of the Western hub in Grand Junction.

Its function does not appear to be defined yet based on what Haaland, Culver, and Laura Daniel-Davis, the Interior principal deputy assistant secretary for land and mineral management, told employees during the online session Friday.

Haaland vowed that "BLM’s presence in Grand Junction will remain and grow as the bureau’s official Western headquarters. The important policy functions and senior personnel will continue to be located in the Western headquarters."

Shepard said the Western hub gives BLM "a great opportunity to build a center for the many new programs, such as conservation lands, increased recreation use, renewable energy, tribal coordination and others."

To Casey Hammond, former Interior Department principal deputy assistant secretary for land and mineral management during the Trump administration, it appears the headquarters move is a change in name only.

"If it remains a small ‘core’ coming back to D.C., and the Grand Junction team is expanded, this is a great victory for our effort to reposition resources, decisionmaking and accountability to the field," Hammond told E&E News.

"Our plan had a small contingency remaining in D.C., so with this decision, Secretary Haaland has cemented our establishment of the Western HQ and relocation of nearly all positions," he said.

Could the Washington move spark another employee exodus?

Haaland clearly wants to avoid a repeat of the fallout from the Trump-era relocation.

When 328 positions were shifted out of Washington last year, 287 employees, or 87 percent of those reassigned, left the bureau rather than move, according to Interior statistics (E&E News PM, Jan. 28).

Only 41 D.C.-based employees actually moved, either to the new headquarters in Grand Junction or to other BLM state offices across the West.

Of those 41, some have told Haaland and BLM leadership they like living in the West and don’t want to relocate again (Greenwire, July 23).

"The move actually was a good thing for some people," said one former D.C.-based employee during a session with Haaland this summer, who added moving back to Washington would be "doubly difficult" for him after settling into his new home.

Whether some officials decide to leave the bureau likely depends on what Haaland meant when she told staffers Friday that only the "core senior leadership" positions will be required to be stationed in Washington.

The distinction is important because Haaland assured staffers that no BLM employee will be "required to relocate, other than the core aforementioned BLM leadership positions."

Shepard said he does not think there "will be another mass exodus of employees" like last year, mainly because Haaland "has committed to working with employees to keep disruption to a minimum."

Indeed, Haaland told employees, "We will work with each of you to ensure that any transitions are smooth, and that you each have the support you need."

But sources said at least two senior career officials hired during the Trump administration have indicated they do not want to move.

There could be others.

If so, Shepard noted that top-level positions "are filled by Senior Executive Service employees and they knowingly have accepted the fact that they can be moved as needed."

Will changes help, or hamper, efforts to fill headquarters vacancies?

One of the biggest challenges facing BLM is the number of vacancies in the bureau’s headquarters office, many caused by the Trump-era move West.

Indeed, Haaland mentioned that filling the vacancies "caused by the destructive move" of BLM’s headquarters to Grand Junction remains a top agency priority.

The vacancies have caused a lot of concern among BLM staffers, according to an employee town hall meeting this summer. One employee told Culver at that online meeting that many divisions "are severely understaffed" at the moment (Greenwire, June 23).

But because it’s not yet clear what positions will be going where, it’s difficult to see the bureau filling those vacancies quickly.

And that makes it more challenging to implement President Biden’s agenda.

BLM has been advertising for numerous positions, from state directors in Alaska, New Mexico and Wyoming to field managers, geologists and even a deputy state director’s position in Utah.

Of the 79 positions currently posted as open on USAJobs.gov, only two — a rangeland management specialist and an assistant field manager for resources — are set to be stationed in Grand Junction. Conversely, only seven are listed as posted in Washington, D.C., with the others in various spots in the West, where 97 percent of BLM employees already worked before the Trump-era move.

Culver told staffers Friday that "filling the many vacancies" is a top priority, and that BLM would be releasing "more details about other positions and their locations within the organization" in the coming weeks.