The Bureau of Land Management is reassigning the directors of the Alaska, Colorado and New Mexico state offices to positions at other federal agencies as part of an Interior Department reorganization that sources say is only beginning.
Alaska Director Bud Cribley, Colorado Director Ruth Welch and New Mexico Director Amy Lueders are among as many as 50 BLM and other Interior career officials notified this month that they are being transferred to different agencies or other positions within BLM, multiple sources with knowledge of the moves told E&E News.
The Senior Executive Service officials were told of the transfers earlier this month and given 15 days, or until Wednesday, to either accept the transfers, retire or resign (Greenwire, June 16). Additional transfer notices will be coming as soon as this week, sources said.
BLM and Interior Department officials have declined to provide many details about the ongoing reorganization effort, or the transfers of SES employees to other federal agencies.
But reassigning three state directors represents a major administrative change for the agency. The trio at issue oversee 94 million acres of some of the most resource-rich and environmentally sensitive lands managed by the agency.
It’s not clear whether anyone has been named to replace the outgoing state directors.
Heather Swift, an Interior spokeswoman, declined to confirm that the state directors are being reassigned.
"I have no information on specific personnel matters at this time," Swift said in an email.
But sources confirmed that Cribley is being transferred from the Alaska state office to an unspecified administrative position at the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. Cribley would have 60 days to move if he accepts the transfer, sources said.
Welch is being reassigned to an administrative position with the Bureau of Reclamation but will remain in the Denver area.
Sources also confirmed that Lueders is being transferred to an unspecified position at the Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, N.M. The Washington Post first reported Lueders’ transfer.
It’s not clear whether the three state directors have agreed to the transfers. Only Cribley, who first joined BLM in 1975, has been with the agency long enough to retire with full benefits, sources said.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has defended the transfers in general, telling reporters last week that he wasn’t firing anyone, but rather shifting people to jobs where their skills are better suited (E&E News PM, June 21).
Senior executives are required when they enter the SES to sign a form acknowledging they are subject to involuntary reassignments.
By statute, reassignments must comply with proper notification requirements of at least 15 days for a transfer to another SES job within the same agency and the same commuting area, and 60 days for a transfer outside the geographic commuting area.
"If you accept an SES position, you should be prepared to move," Zinke said.
More moves coming
BLM acting Director Mike Nedd held a June 16 teleconference with members of the agency’s Executive Leadership Team to discuss the latest SES transfers and to prepare senior leadership for "one or two more rounds" of similar moves in the coming weeks, sources said.
A BLM source said a new round of agency transfers could come as early as Thursday.
Swift, in a brief email to E&E News, wrote that Zinke "has been absolutely out front" that transfers were coming since "his first-day address to all employees" in March.
They are part of an Interior agencywide reboot Zinke outlined in general terms this month that calls for reorganizing the agency under a "joint system" that would shift federal employees from Washington to the field (E&E News PM, June 8).
He has promised more details in the coming weeks.
"Personnel moves are being conducted to better serve the taxpayer and the Department’s operations through matching Senior Executive skill sets with mission and operational requirements," Swift wrote.
The Trump administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget for BLM calls for a nearly 13 percent cut in funding from current operating levels.
Nedd sent an agencywide email to all staff June 16 acknowledging that the budget cuts, if implemented, "could mean 1,000 fewer full-time equivalent employees across the Nation," according to a copy of the email obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Nedd’s email says the agency can probably handle most of the reduction through attrition and retirements but adds that BLM "may also seek authority from the Office of Personnel Management to offer early retirement and voluntary separation incentives later this year."
Nedd was not involved in the decision to transfer the state directors, a source with knowledge of the reorganization told E&E News. The source said Nedd was told of the transfers about an hour before the letters were sent June 15 to the employees targeted for transfer.
Sources said the transfer decision came down the chain of command from James Cason, Interior’s associate deputy secretary.
Cason, a George W. Bush-era official who served as Interior associate deputy secretary from 2001 to 2009, is co-leading an Interior rule-cutting task force (E&E News PM, April 24).
Though details are few, the transfers have sparked questions from elected leaders. New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall (D) at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing last week expressed concern to Zinke about losing Lueders.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), attending the Western Governors’ Association annual meeting in Whitefish, Mont., told E&E News this week that he’s concerned about the impacts of losing talented BLM staffers that his office has worked with on issues like greater sage grouse management.
"All I have is anecdotal information, but it sounds like people are being transferred away from their expertise and away from their traditional area of responsibility, and I do worry that we’re going to lose some of the institutional memory, that kind of muscle memory that allows you to get good policy and not bad policy," Hickenlooper said.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), also attending the WGA meeting, echoed Hickenlooper. While Bullock said it’s "laudable" to reorganize the agency to make it more effective, "we need to make sure in doing so we’re not taking steps back."
Alaska, Colorado and New Mexico have all been involved in controversial energy development and natural resource issues in the past few years, and sources say Interior brass do not view the three state directors at issue as being compatible with the Trump administration’s stated push to promote more oil and gas development and mining activity on federal lands.
The transfer of Cribley, who has been BLM’s Alaska state director since November 2010, comes just weeks after Zinke toured the state and announced plans to open new sections of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to oil and gas leasing (Energywire, June 1).
Sources said Cribley had a good relationship with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who accompanied Zinke on part of his tour through the state last month.
But Murkowski and other members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have long complained about federal land-use policies that they say have limited access to mineral resources and stifled economic development.
Welch, appointed Colorado state director in June 2014, helped broker agreements throwing out already-issued oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide portion of the White River National Forest and atop the sensitive Roan Plateau.
Welch stood next to former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell during a ceremony in Denver announcing both agreements; the leader of an industry trade group derided the ceremony as "despicable" (E&E News PM, Nov. 17, 2016).
Lueders, appointed New Mexico state director in 2015, was viewed as instrumental in helping BLM develop sweeping federal greater sage grouse conservation plans that were key in convincing the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Prior to her appointment as New Mexico director, she served on detail in BLM’s Washington headquarters overseeing sage grouse conservation as acting assistant director for renewable resources and planning.
Zinke, a longtime critic of the federal plans, this month announced Interior will review the grouse plans to determine in part whether they are hindering energy production on public lands (Greenwire, June 7).
Lueders was also BLM Nevada director during the disastrous 2014 armed standoff with ranchers and militia groups who blocked the agency from removing hundreds of head of cattle owned by rancher Cliven Bundy that were illegally grazing on federal land.
Other high-ranking BLM officials are also being transferred.
Among them is Salvatore Lauro, who directs the agency’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security.
Lauro is scheduled to be transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service as chief of FWS’s Office of Law Enforcement.
The current FWS Office of Law Enforcement chief, Bill Woody, will essentially switch places with Lauro and is scheduled to be transferred to head up BLM’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security.
In addition, Janine Velasco, BLM’s assistant director of business, fiscal and information resources management, is being transferred to an unspecified administrative position at FWS in Washington.
Reporter Jennifer Yachnin contributed.