BLM move could leave skeleton crew in D.C.

By Scott Streater | 07/16/2019 12:58 PM EDT

Interior Department headquarters in Washington.

Interior Department headquarters in Washington. Francis Chung/E&E News

The vast majority of the 500 or so Bureau of Land Management employees in Washington, D.C., will be transferred out West, with 61 officials left in the nation’s capital if the Interior Department follows through on plans to relocate BLM’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., according to sources briefed on the matter.

An estimated 27 of the senior-most BLM officials — including the bureau director, both deputy directors and the seven assistant directors of programs that cover everything from onshore energy development to annual budget planning — will be transferred to Grand Junction, making it the bureau’s new headquarters, according to sources who asked not to be identified.

And 296 Washington-based employees, including 74 top senior-level officials who would report for the first time to individual state directors, will be moved out across the West to offices in Grand Junction, Denver, and other Western cities in Utah, Nevada and elsewhere, the sources said. There are roughly 9,000 BLM employees posted in offices around the United States.


The goal is to complete the transfers of hundreds of Washington-based BLM employees before the November 2020 presidential elections, one source said, though it’s not clear why that deadline was chosen.

The relocation numbers come as speculation continues to swirl about the BLM move and amid silence from top Interior and bureau officials.

Interior is today expected to formally announce the proposed move to Grand Junction on the state’s Western Slope.

E&E News first reported BLM’s plans to relocate its headquarters to Grand Junction yesterday (Greenwire, July 15).

The nearly 300 employees moving West are significantly more than what some media outlets reported yesterday. The Washington Post originally reported that only about 80 Washington-based bureau employees would be moved to new locations out West, before updating the story.

BLM had an all-staff meeting today to announce the move to bureau employees in Washington, D.C., during which some of these numbers were discussed, a source said. It’s not clear whether a second meeting originally set for yesterday between Mike Nedd, BLM’s deputy director of operations, and the bureau’s executive leadership team took place; a source said the call was rescheduled for today.

But the lack of public information from Interior and BLM has frustrated some members of Congress, including House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

Grijalva yesterday blasted the proposed move, ripping Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for not providing Congress with details about the relocation out West, where the vast majority of the 245 million acres of land the bureau manages is located (E&E News PM, July 15).

It’s likely that congressional Democrats will resist any move to appropriate the $5 million BLM estimates it will need to complete the relocation.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), whose congressional district includes Grand Junction, have enthusiastically supported the proposed move out West.

While BLM and Interior have not publicly discussed the proposed move in any detail, they have in general defended the need to move BLM, and other Interior agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, out West, where the vast majority of public lands Interior manages are located.

The BLM headquarters relocation is a key component of a broad Interior reorganization plan first proposed in 2017 by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. That reorganization would include dividing Interior-managed lands into 12 regions, with perhaps one central administrator overseeing each region and the bureaus within it.

Interior has said this will, among other things, help make the department operate more efficiently.

But bureau observers question how moving BLM’s headquarters out of Washington will help it function better.

"A move to Grand Junction will further remove BLM career leadership from policy decisions which will still be made in Washington by the Department," Steve Ellis, former BLM deputy director of operations who retired in 2016, told E&E News today in an email.

Similar concerns are expressed by Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM retiree’s organization.

"The BLM is a national agency and should have its headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area like all other agencies," Shepard said. "Scattering the Washington office across the West is not effective or efficient."

Shepard, who retired from BLM in 2012 after a 38-year career, added, "It will make it much harder to communicate and coordinate with other agencies, the [Interior] Department, Congress, and many stakeholders."

The efforts to move BLM headquarters come after the Department of Agriculture announced plans to move two of its agencies — the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — to Kansas City by the end of the fiscal year (Greenwire, June 13). Employees at those two agencies unionized in the lead-up to the announcement and have pledged to fight the move (E&E News PM, July 10).