U.S. Senator Cory Gardner may have stolen the spotlight Monday, taking credit for the Bureau of Land Management’s anticipated move from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado, but Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Joe Balash made it official Tuesday during a conference call with reporters from across the country.
“There are 27 positions associated with the director, the deputy director for operations and the assistant directors of the Bureau that will relocate to Grand Junction for the new headquarters for BLM,” he said.
Senator Gardner (R-CO) has been lobbying hard for the move, claiming to be the “chief architect” of the plan to move agency headquarters west.
His website provides a timeline, beginning in June 2016 when Gardner raised the idea at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing, and includes his Bureau of Land Management Headquarters Act, introduced in May 2017.
Congressman Scott Tipton, also a Republican and representative of Colorado’s Third District, introduced the companion bill in the House.
According to congress.gov, the act didn’t gain much traction. But, apparently, it didn’t have to. Both former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and current chief David Bernhardt had been keen on the idea of moving the agency someplace out West. Bernhardt first announced the planned move in April 2018 without naming a location.
Balash said that before Bernhardt was confirmed as DOI director, the agency had looked at costs and benefits associated with staying in the district or leaving.
“What we found was, because of the incredibly high cost of real estate and lease costs as well as the locality pay differential that employees in the D.C. Metro area receive, that moving the headquarters to another location was going to result in a significant savings almost regardless of where we might put the headquarters.”
Each of the 550 agency positions that report to Washington, D.C., were sorted, using four questions: Is the position necessary to deliver the results for its respective national program? Does it need to be in Washington, D.C.? If not, where is the best place for it to be? The final test was whether the job needed to be close to the BLM director on a daily basis.
One hundred sixty-six positions are already spread out across the West. “Some of them are in law enforcement; some are in the Wild Horse and Burro Program and other national programs,” said Balash.
Sixty-one jobs will stay in the district. “Those are positions primarily related to budget, congressional affairs and relations, regulatory affairs, and FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) compliance,” he added.
But most are headed West. Twenty-seven jobs, including the director and assistant directors, will work out of the Grand Junction headquarters. Seventy-four positions were deemed no longer necessary at the national level. “Those positions have been allocated to individual state offices to carry out their mission at state, district, and field office levels,” he said.
The remaining 222 jobs will be assigned to state offices associated with the job. Oregon timber sale positions, for example, will go to Oregon.
Critics of the move
Public lands and public employee advocacy groups, such as the Western Values Project (WVP), the Public Lands Foundation (PLF), and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), cite fiscal discrepancies, lack of transparency, and concerns about the impact on decision-making as reasons to oppose the move.
George Stone, board member of PLF, a public lands advocacy group comprised of retired BLM employees, told The Sopris Sun that he’s concerned that the plan will dilute the BLM. “This is highly unusual to dismantle a functioning headquarters office and, frankly, to remove headquarters’ senior management and staff positions and disperse them elsewhere in the organization,” he said.
Stone added that PLF has not seen a business case, justifying the relocation. He questions the costs involved. “Why would it make sense to do all this?” he asked. “Is it efficiency? Is it effectiveness? What are the problems they are trying to solve?”
Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of WVP, a public lands advocacy group based in Montana, said that moving key BLM positions out West will not change the fact that public lands policy decisions are made in Washington DC.
“There are over a dozen other agencies that have some influence on how we manage our public lands and those are based in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “When we talk about decisions that impact those public lands and folks out West, we’re losing an important component in allowing that collaboration and that input to happen.”
Timing and money
O’Neill is also concerned about money already spent on the relocation. WVP claims that $14 million was spent in fiscal year 2018 on the reorganization proposal but does not know exactly how that money was spent.
Interior has requested another $27 million but that has not yet been allocated.
Jeff Ruch, Pacific Director of PEER, a public employee advocacy group, said that some of the money that Interior is using for the move has already been allocated and is coming out of BLM’s general operating funds.
“Most of these agencies have a fair amount of discretion as to how to spend money that’s been appropriated unless it’s confined to a line item for a specific purpose,” he explained.
He added that he doesn’t know how much BLM plans to spend on the move. “But, they appear to be rushing it so that they have it in place before it can be vetoed or blocked in the upcoming appropriations bill for [fiscal year] 2020 which begins Oct. 1.”
George Stone said about $5 million is available for the relocation, based on 2019 appropriations.
Erin Ricchio, community organizer for Grand Junction-based Conservation Colorado, said she’s glad the town will reap the economic benefits of the move and that new BLM employees will get to experience western public lands first-hand. But, she’s wary of the Trump Administration. “It won’t actually do much to protect our treasured public lands as long as we have this current presidential administration in place,” she said.
The BLM plans to have the relocation complete within the next 15 months but the agency still does not have a permanent director.
“As a matter of fact, there’s not even a nominee to be the director of the BLM,” said Jeff Ruch. “So a department that’s proposing to do major things like change its headquarters, you would think you’d have a director that would be making that decision and explaining it for reasons that are readily understood both to the employees and to the public, but that’s not the case.”