The Bureau of Land Management is hustling in the Trump administration’s final weeks to fill vacant senior-level career positions at its new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., and at state offices across the West.
In the last three weeks, BLM has advertised more than two dozen top-level General Schedule (GS) positions, with starting annual salaries in most cases well above $100,000, including two adviser positions in Grand Junction.
All are career positions, in the GS-13 grade or higher. They range from a district manager in Cedar City, Utah, to a management and program analyst in Reno, Nev., and a mechanical engineer in Lakewood, Colo. They also include two division chiefs for wildlife conservation, aquatics and environmental protection in Salt Lake City, according to the postings on USAJobs.gov.
All but one are scheduled to be filled by the end of the month, representing a clear example of the administration’s efforts to "burrow" officials hired by Trump political appointees like BLM Deputy Director of Policy and Programs William Perry Pendley into permanent career positions.
They also represent what some current and former Interior Department officials say is an attempt to complicate an expected move by President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to relocate the new Colorado headquarters, and dozens of other positions reassigned to state offices in the West, back to Washington.
BLM and Interior representatives did not respond to a request to comment on this story.
But sources told E&E News the effort to target filling vacant career employee positions — as opposed to Senior Executive Service positions that require they relocate for whatever reason — could make it more difficult because GS employees can appeal relocations as "adverse actions."
That could prove especially true for positions hired specifically in Grand Junction, such as the two adviser positions.
The new Interior secretary would have to issue a secretarial order establishing BLM headquarters back in Washington. This would allow BLM to issue a "transfer of function" of each position back to the District of Columbia, which may shield the bureau from appeals, a source said.
In addition, some of the positions advertised are open for as little as six days, raising red flags with some close observers that particular individuals have already been targeted to fill the position.
A management and program analyst position in Lakewood, Colo., which boasts a starting annual salary of $118,202, was advertised in USAJobs.gov on Friday and will expire tomorrow.
Another Lakewood-based position, senior planning and environmental analyst, was advertised in USAJobs.gov on Dec. 8 and expired yesterday.
"To advertise for only six days, seven days, I mean, the standard is 30 days. They’re rushing to fill them," a former senior Interior official said.
Another former senior Interior official concurred, adding that the bureau’s human relations officials "will usually do pushback on a short advertisement period as this is usually a sign that the selecting official has probably preselected someone for the position."
Another former senior BLM official who reviewed the job postings said it’s "definitely not typical to have a position advertised for such a short time."
A source said BLM is moving to fill long-vacant positions in anticipation of Biden issuing a federal hiring freeze — a fairly common move that gives the new administration time to assess staffing levels in new priority areas.
"My guess is that the Biden folks will also implement a freeze until they take stock. Especially of BLM, given the whole HQ move," a former senior bureau official said.
Several sources say this is routine at the end of an administration. Indeed, the Obama administration did the same thing in the closing months knowing that President Trump would institute a hiring freeze.
BLM’s future will come more into focus once Biden names his nominee for the Senate-confirmed Interior secretary’s position. That nomination will be among the most closely watched, with New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall (D) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) considered the top two candidates.
As for BLM, Biden’s transition team has been searching for a long-term career official to lead the bureau on an acting basis through at least the first six months of next year.
Among the top targets is Steve Ellis, who served as BLM’s deputy director of operations until retiring after more than three decades with the bureau and the Forest Service in the final months of the Obama administration, according to sources (Greenwire, Nov. 18).
Biden’s transition team has said publicly the new administration plans to make some major changes at BLM beginning the day Biden is inaugurated Jan. 20. In order to do that, sources say, a seasoned career official is needed who understands the basic organization and structure of the bureau and who has the respect of the staff.
They also want to allow the new Interior secretary time to decide on a permanent BLM director whom Biden would nominate for Senate confirmation.