Black, Asian employees hit hard by Trump’s BLM HQ move

By Scott Streater | 11/18/2021 01:49 PM EST

The Bureau of Land Management's headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. Jennifer Yachnin/E&E News

The Trump-era relocation of the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters to Colorado gutted senior-level staffers and dramatically reduced the numbers of Black and Asian employees in key headquarters positions, a new Government Accountability Office report concludes.

From the time the controversial relocation of BLM’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., was announced in 2019 to January 2021, 61 African American staffers stationed at the bureau’s headquarters — or more than half of 116 employees — left the bureau, according to the GAO report released today.

Prior to the move announced in July 2019, African Americans made up nearly a quarter of BLM headquarters staffers, and those HQ staffers represented more than a third of Black employees at the bureau; just four months after the move West was completed in August 2020, African Americans comprised only 12 percent of headquarters staff and they were 19 percent of the total Black workforce at the bureau.

The number of Asian staffers also was cut by more than half as a result of the move — to eight employees from 17, the report says. Asian Americans make up only 2 percent of the headquarters staff today, it says.

The Bureau of Land Management has an overwhelmingly white workforce. Nearly 75 percent of headquarters staffers are white. Overall, in both 2016 and this year, more than 80 percent of staffers are white, the GAO report says.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced in September that the agency will move the national headquarters back to Washington and make the Grand Junction office a Western hub (E&E News PM, Sept. 17).

“They lost a lot of very seasoned headquarters employees. But the relocation really hurt the diversity of the bureau,” said Steve Ellis, the former BLM deputy director of operations during the second half of the Obama administration.

“The African American employees, in particular, took a hard hit on this move,” Ellis added. “That’s important because the BLM manages about 10 percent of the nation’s lands. It’s important that the workforce at the Bureau of Land Management reflect the public that they serve. And so they don’t reflect the public nearly as well after this move.”

The GAO report — requested by House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and submitted to the committee earlier this week — recommends that BLM better “track data” on departmentwide vacancies at all departments, and “develop an agency-wide strategic workforce plan” to ensure the bureau can continue to meet “emerging mission goals” in the future.

“Without a strategic workforce plan that addresses these needs, BLM lacks reasonable assurance the agency will have the workforce necessary to achieve its goals in managing millions of acres of public lands,” the report says.

Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who oversaw the BLM move for the Trump administration, did not respond to a request for comment.

BLM, in an emailed statement to E&E News, blamed the problems highlighted in the report “on the previous administration’s move of BLM National Headquarters out of Washington, D.C.”

BLM’s statement said the GAO report “validated that the relocation reduced diversity, created unacceptable vacancies, and drove many experienced employees out of the bureau.”

It added: “The bureau agrees with the GAO report findings and is already working to address recommendations. The BLM is committed to moving forward in a thoughtful and deliberate way working with employees, tribes, elected officials and stakeholders as we work to repair the damage.”

Casey Hammond, a former Interior principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management during the Trump administration, noted that the GAO report highlights the fact that BLM was able to fill some vacant positions after the move was completed. “Look at it, we did a major reorganization and yet we are basically back to the same level of vacancies we had when the move was announced,” he said.

The GAO report noted that in July 2019, headquarters vacancies were 121 and rose to 326 by March 2020, but had come down to 142 by May 2021. However, the report also notes that the “total permanent headquarters workforce” as of this January was about 18 percent smaller than in July 2019.

The latest GAO report supports warnings from Grijalva in 2019 shortly after Bernhardt announced the BLM relocation that the agency did not consider the impacts of the move on African American employees, potentially opening the bureau up to civil rights lawsuits (E&E News PM, Dec. 4, 2019).

If the move has a “disparate impact on any protected class of employees, the agency would be exposed to significant legal liability that could rival the cost of the entire relocation” Grijalva wrote in the letter to Bernhardt, citing possible Civil Rights Act litigation.

The latest report is a follow-up to a GAO report last year that found BLM did not make much effort to involve “employees and key stakeholders” in the reorganization plan (Greenwire, March 6, 2020).

GAO at that time had vowed to continue investigating the impacts of the headquarters relocation on employees and BLM’s ability to carrying out its mission as the federal government’s largest landowner.

Overall, the GAO report provides some of the most detailed numbers yet on the move’s impact on headquarters staffing.

Interior earlier this year reported that 328 positions were shifted out of Washington last year, and that 287 employees, or 87 percent of those reassigned, left the bureau rather than move (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.

But the GAO report notes that of the 328 headquarters positions that BLM reassigned, to either Colorado or other state offices in the West, 134 were already vacant before the relocation.

BLM permanently “reallocated 17 that were already located in state offices” to those state positions, “and one position was pending administrative action as of May 2021.”

In total, 176 staff members’ jobs were relocated out West.

A total of 135 staff either quit the bureau for other positions at different Interior agencies or retired, the report says.

Many of the staffers who left BLM were experienced employees with more than 25 years of service, the report says.

“In our interviews with 13 BLM staff members, almost all told us that the loss of experienced staff negatively affected their offices’ ability to conduct its duties,” it says.

The GAO report also found the diversity record at BLM and its headquarters hasn’t been entirely negative in the past couple of years.

The report says that “the representation of Hispanics or Latinos increased by about 17 percent” by January 2021.

While Asian American staffers decreased at the BLM headquarters, agencywide they increased by about 18 percent, while Native Americans or Alaska Natives increased by about 5 percent.

Overall for the bureau, African American BLM employees decreased by about 6 percent, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders by about 18 percent, and white staffers by about 2 percent, the report says.