The Bureau of Land Management plans to complete the relocation of its national headquarters back to Washington by next September, while most senior officials will be required to return to the nation’s capital by this December.
BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning wrote in an email sent to bureau staffers late Wednesday that while most senior headquarters employees not currently based in the D.C. area will be required to return to Washington in the coming months, telework will remain an option for most, at least temporarily.
She also said in the email obtained by E&E News that BLM, for the first time, plans to fully staff the Grand Junction, Colo., office where former President Donald Trump moved the headquarters in 2019. Roughly 41 employees had been reassigned to the Colorado headquarters, although only a handful actually did move there, due mostly to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But potentially complicating matters for BLM leadership on the latest moving plan is the decision by headquarters employees in May to join the National Treasury Employees Union. It’s not clear if BLM will have to negotiate the details and timelines outlined in Stone-Manning’s email with the roughly 200 headquarters employees in the union.
Representatives of the union could not be reached for comment.
Stone-Manning’s email did not mention the union.
BLM declined to answer questions submitted by E&E News regarding the union and how many employees would be located in Grand Junction. Instead, BLM issued a statement saying the bureau has been “moving forward with reestablishing and rebuilding the headquarters in Washington,” and that Stone-Manning’s email “was merely an update to help advise our dedicated employees of the status of that hard work.”
But the email provides the most details yet on the Biden administration’s plans to restore the national office in Washington, after the Trump-era relocation to Grand Junction prompted at least 135 mostly senior officials to resign or retire rather than move.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced last year that she would be returning the headquarters to Washington and designating the Grand Junction office as a “Western hub” for the bureau (E&E News PM, Sept. 17, 2021).
Perhaps more importantly, Stone-Manning’s email provides firm deadlines for making it happen, starting next month, when senior leaders in the five directorates targeted for relocation must decide which support staffers not currently in the D.C. headquarters will be required to return.
Stone-Manning’s email implies that there could be a lot of employee movement in the coming months.
Of BLM’s six directorates that handle everything from oil and gas permitting to compliance with environmental laws and regulations, only the assistant director of national conservation lands and community partnerships, who oversees the National Conservation Lands system, will remain in Grand Junction, her email says.
That specific assistant director’s position is currently vacant after Mark Lambrecht left the bureau last month; Lambrecht had declined an involuntary reassignment to a new senior adviser position (Greenwire, Aug. 1).
The five assistant directors who are targeted to move back to Washington have until December to do so, according to Stone-Manning’s email.
Three of the five assistant directors are currently assigned in Grand Junction, including Matthew Buffington, BLM’s assistant director of communications. Buffington is leaving the bureau this month, and a senior Interior Department official with knowledge of the situation told E&E News that part of the reason is that he did not want to move to Washington (Greenwire, Aug. 26).
The deputy assistant directors in the five directorates will be given until June 2023 to move to Washington.
Other non-Senior Executive Service positions — presumably division chiefs, deputy division chiefs and branch chiefs, among others — will be allowed to take a “phased approach with a goal to have all the positions located in the D.C. Headquarters no later than September 2023,” Stone-Manning wrote.
All non-SES staffers not in Washington will be given a remote work “option” that will be decided “on a case-by-case basis,” she wrote.
The assistant directors in each directorate targeted for relocation must “determine which of the vital supporting positions in each of the programs … should be duty stationed in Washington, D.C.,” by Oct. 1.
Two current BLM employees who were granted anonymity so they could talk freely about the plan said they are still trying to digest the information in the email, but voiced some concerns about the deadlines to relocate potentially driving some employees to leave.
Stone-Manning’s email is consistent with what she has told employees on a number of occasions — her No. 1 priority as BLM director is to rebuild the bureau and beef up staffing (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2021).
Thus, she wrote to staff that moving bureau headquarters back to Washington is necessary so that senior officials and their teams can be close to Congress and their counterparts at other Interior Department agencies.
“You all know that the Bureau is still in the process of rebuilding from the loss of hundreds of staff and the organizational disruption of the last several years,” she wrote. “We are doing so in part by moving critical positions back to Washington, D.C., and in part by anchoring a headquarters presence in Grand Junction,” as directed by Haaland.
Haaland last year promised Colorado Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper when she announced the headquarters move that BLM would fully staff the Grand Junction office.
“It is clear that central to rebuilding the BLM is reestablishing a robust presence in our nation’s capital and in our western office in Grand Junction,” she added. “Equally clear is that we have to do right by our staff, so we will work with you on an individual basis, to explore options that are right for you and right for the Bureau. Our goal is to get the right function for headquarters and the right fit for each of you. I believe they aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Some of the details in Stone-Manning’s email were outlined in general terms last year in a report to Congress, which noted that more than half the senior-level positions assigned to the former headquarters in Grand Junction would be moving back to Washington (Greenwire, Dec. 14, 2021).
For example, the report to Congress noted that BLM planned to keep the assistant director of national conservation lands and community partnerships in Grand Junction. The report also stated that BLM was considering establishing a new SES-level position that would be stationed in Grand Junction.
Stone-Manning’s latest email confirms that the new Senior Executive Service position in Grand Junction will serve as a liaison between BLM and Western state and local government leaders.
“As we grow the BLM to meet the needs of the landscapes we manage, we will continue to evaluate opportunities for additional growth in the Grand Junction office for the foreseeable future,” she wrote.
It’s not clear in Stone-Manning’s email how many employees will be affected by this plan.
The BLM report to Congress last year estimated that nearly 50 positions that were moved to Grand Junction and other states in the West as part of the Trump-era reorganization would move back to Washington.
But it is clear that BLM’s leaders will be in Washington by next year.
That includes the BLM director, as well as Deputy Director of Operations Mike Nedd, whose position was scheduled to be reassigned to Grand Junction under the original Trump-era plan.
Stone-Manning said the latest plan was developed using information gathered in a summer 2021 employee survey, “and in great part by the work of the [21-member] Employee Advisory Group, which was established in January 2022 to help leadership think through decisions around the locations of duty stations” (E&E News PM, Feb. 2).
Stone-Manning, Haaland and other senior BLM officials have prioritized keeping bureau staffers in the loop as decisions are made, holding a series of “town hall” meetings with employees last year (Greenwire, July 23, 2021).
Nedd, for example, held a series of individual meetings with employees to gather information on the bureau’s operations and ways to improve them (Greenwire, Sept. 3, 2021).
Some BLM observers cheered the plan outlined in Stone-Manning’s email, including Steve Ellis, a former BLM deputy director of operations during the Obama administration.
“I’m pleased they are moving those positions back where they never should have left. That is positive,” Ellis said in an interview.
He added, “I think they are headed in the right direction here in putting this organization back together.”