BLM returns headquarters to D.C.

By Scott Streater | 09/17/2021 03:31 PM EST

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

The Biden administration plans to move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters back to Washington but will convert the current headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., into a Western hub with additional staff assigned there, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told bureau employees today.

“I intend to restore the national headquarters of the BLM to Washington, D.C., ensuring a presence in the nation’s Capitol with all the other land management agencies in the federal family,” Haaland said during the 12-minute session.

The decision, which would appear to demote the Grand Junction office into a kind of sub-headquarters, would restore a BLM leadership presence in D.C. after the Trump-era relocation of hundreds of positions to Grand Junction and other state offices across the West. That move prompted dozens of senior officials to leave the bureau, creating a large leadership void and dysfunctional operation that continues today, critics have said.

Under the new plan Haaland outlined in very broad terms to BLM employees in an internal online session today, the director and other key leadership positions — presumably the deputy director of policy and programs and the deputy director of operations — will be permanently stationed in Washington.

It also appears the assistant directors who oversee the six BLM directorates, which manage everything from energy development to resource planning and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, will also relocate to Washington, though Haaland did not say if they are included in the core group. Most of the six assistant directors are currently assigned to Grand Junction.

Haaland was quick to note, “Employees will not be required to relocate, other than the core aforementioned BLM leadership positions.”

It’s not clear how many employees will be returning to Washington. Haaland told staffers decisions like that will not be finalized until after talking to employees “in the weeks and months ahead.”

The moves will allow BLM senior leadership to be near congressional lawmakers and other key Interior decisionmakers, such as officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service.

The decision will also allow BLM to maintain what congressional lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called a strong Western presence. It also seems designed to please Colorado Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, who lobbied to keep the headquarters in their home state, as well as the Grand Junction local community, by committing to increase the number of employees at the Western hub.

Haaland did not say how many employees will stay in Grand Junction.

Controversial from the start

The decision ends months of evaluation by the Interior Department and even more speculation as to what the Biden administration might do with BLM’s headquarters.

Hickenlooper signaled he was supportive of the move to create a Western hub.

“A Western BLM Headquarters in Colorado will help ensure we have a fully functioning agency that understands the West,” Hickenlooper said in an emailed statement.

“We’ll keep working to secure jobs in Grand Junction, including senior leadership positions,” Hickenlooper added. “To succeed, the Western HQ must be a strong, permanent presence that engages the community and adds a Western perspective and value to the BLM’s mission.”

But GOP leaders who support the Trump-era move of the headquarters to Colorado blasted the latest decision.

Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, labeled the move a “misguided, partisan decision” that he said “has nothing to do with executing good land management and everything to do with centralizing and growing big government.”

He added, “A two-quarterback BLM system with one headquarters in D.C. and another headquarters in Colorado will layer bureaucracies, further confusing and complicating an already confused and complicated agency.”

Interior completed the move to the newly christened Robert F. Burford Bureau of Land Management Headquarters in Grand Junction in August 2020 (Greenwire, Aug. 6, 2020).

It was a more than yearlong effort, beginning when BLM announced in July 2019 it would move its headquarters to Grand Junction as part of the reorganization that also included relocating hundreds of D.C.-based positions to state offices in the West.

Then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt promoted the effort as designed to get senior bureau officials closer to the 245 million acres they manage and the people most affected by the bureau’s land-management policies and decisions.

But the move was controversial from the start.

Critics noted that 97 percent of BLM staffers at the time already worked in the West, where 99 percent of the lands the bureau manages are located. They also accused the Trump administration of scattering BLM’s leadership away from policymakers to weaken it, and drive career officials out in an effort to dismantle an agency the administration viewed largely as an impediment to energy development.

The relocation effort was marked to some degree by a lack of transparency and information provided by Interior’s leadership to BLM employees, who complained that their input, when solicited, was often ignored.

There was also either confusion or misinformation by Interior officials on critical details. Bernhardt told a Senate panel last year that 174 D.C.-based staffers had been reassigned to Grand Junction or the other state offices — higher than the 153 to 159 employees BLM had said were relocated (E&E News PM, March 5, 2020).

And William Perry Pendley, the former BLM deputy director of policy and programs whom a federal judge ruled had served as the bureau’s de facto director illegally for more than a year, publicly stated several times that most D.C.-based staffers had agreed to move West.

“Now the naysayers in Washington, they said, ‘Oh, almost everybody will refuse to go.’ No, two-thirds said yes,” Pendley told a conservative Colorado radio station in early 2020 (E&E News PM, Feb. 13, 2020).

Pendley’s numbers were later supported in a formal BLM statement to E&E News.

“We are still comfortable estimating that 2/3 of folks have accepted relocation,” that statement said.

But the Trump Interior Department refused to release the exact numbers to the public, even after the relocation was completed last year.

After President Biden was sworn into office, Interior released statistics that showed 328 positions had been relocated, and 287 employees, or 87% of those reassigned, left the bureau rather than move (E&E News PM, Jan. 28).

There was also disappointment among some Western leaders that BLM had not permanently relocated as many staffers as promised.

About 40 staffers were supposed to be permanently stationed there, but vacancies created by an employee exodus, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic that had most BLM staff working from home, saw only a handful working in the new office.