The Biden administration is trying to tackle the Bureau of Land Management’s chronic staffing shortage.
President Biden’s fiscal 2023 budget request unveiled yesterday asks Congress to allocate funding to hire as many as 760 new employees to the bureau.
That follows Biden’s request last year for the fiscal 2022 budget cycle to hire 649 new employees, referred to in the budget request as “full-time equivalents.” It’s not clear how many of the 649 employees have been hired; there is no mention of the hiring request number in the omnibus spending bill Congress approved, and Biden signed into law this month, that funds the federal government through September.
BLM representatives did not respond to a request for comment and information.
But BLM Deputy Director of Operations Mike Nedd told staffers in February that the fiscal 2022 budget had funding in it for at least 600 new hires, in addition to vacancies within the headquarters office (Greenwire, Feb. 9).
The Government Accountability Office in a report last year estimated BLM’s total staff at 8,800 permanent workers, though recent budget documents estimate the number at roughly 9,800 (Greenwire, Nov. 18, 2021).
If BLM is able to hire 600 new employees in the current budget cycle ending Sept. 30 and is allocated the funding for an additional 760 next year, that would represent an increase of nearly 1,400 employees. That would be enough to raise the total staffing level above the 10,000-employee threshold — to 10,592, according to a BLM budget summary — for the first time in years.
That would go a long way toward addressing what people within BLM and bureau observers estimate to be at least 2,000 vacancies bureau-wide.
It’s also tangible evidence that the White House intends to help BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning follow through on her vow to employees that her top priority this year is rebuilding the bureau with a focus on “fixing staffing shortages” (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2021).
Mary Jo Rugwell, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM retirees group, said congressional funding to hire employees “is critically important for the BLM” as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the bureau work to accomplish the administration’s goals of expanding renewable energy development on federal lands, improving the resiliency of federal rangelands in the face of climate change and other priorities.
“I applaud the Biden administration, Secretary Haaland and Director Stone-Manning for all they are doing to resolve this situation,” Rugwell said.
Bob Abbey, a former BLM director during the Obama administration, said he agrees.
“Historically, the BLM has been understaffed and underfunded given the importance of the agency’s multiple-use mission and the number of acres the BLM manages on behalf of the public,” Abbey said in an email to E&E News. “It is nice to see that after all these years, a Secretary of Interior with the support of the current administration is trying to address this longstanding staffing issue.”
Most staffing shortages historically have been due to federal hiring freezes, such as the one former President Trump instituted when he took office in January 2017.
“But it got worse” during the Trump administration after the Interior Department in 2020 relocated BLM’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., said a senior Interior Department official who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. At that point, 135 mostly senior-level employees left BLM.
“We lost a lot of institutional knowledge at high levels” as a result, the official said. “So for this hiring surge we’re looking at, it’s great. It’s been long overdue and very welcome.”
The shortfalls have resulted in staff having to perform multiple duties at times or being subject to “temporary reassignments, known as details, to fill the duties of vacant headquarters positions,” the GAO reported last year.
Stone-Manning noted some of these problems in her all-staff email in December. “Our teams aren’t robust enough at present to handle the oncoming workload and expectations. It’s past time to rebuild,” she wrote.
The problem is ongoing, as staffing levels at BLM have impacted basic functions, such as conducting rangeland health assessments to gauge the condition of grazing allotments, the official said (E&E News PM, March 23).
“When you’re short-staffed and new priorities are given to us by the administration, some of that gets delayed,” the official said.