Breaking up the Bureau of Land Management Headquarters
Political stunt will drain agency of expertise and career leadership
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has proposed a sweeping plan to dismantle the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters in Washington, DC. The BLM is responsible for managing the bulk of our nation’s public lands and overseeing drilling, mining, and grazing alongside conservation and recreation. The plan grabbed headlines for “relocating” the agency’s headquarters, but a closer look reveals a cynical attempt to scatter employees and drain the agency of expertise and leadership.
The forced relocation of staff to the West is a solution in search of a problem. Roughly 95 percent of BLM employees are already located outside of Washington, DC, with hundreds of staff in each Western state. The agency has dozens of state, district, and field offices around the region, placing staff close to the lands they manage and the people they serve.
The BLM has roughly 380 staff in Washington, DC — just 4 percent of the agency’s workforce. Those limited staff allow the agency to effectively coordinate with Congress, the Interior Department, and other agencies, ensuring BLM’s Western staff have a seat at the table. In a letter to Senators, the Interior Department specifically notes that many senior officials who direct policy and budgets are located in Washington.
Bernhardt’s plan calls for those staff to volunteer to move West, and if they don’t, the agency will issue “directed reassignments.” Those forcible reassignments — a life changing decision for families — will likely lead to significant staff losses, either through resignations or retirement.
By scattering key staff across the West and causing massive staff turnover, Bernhardt will drain the agency of career leadership and turn it into an afterthought in Washington. As Kate Kelly, public lands director for the Center for American Progress put it, “The true impact of this move is to make the agency and its leadership invisible in a city where — like it or not — the decisions about budgets and policies are made. The constant shuffling, shrinking and disassembling of BLM’s workforce will have long-term implications for the health of the agency.”
Secretary Bernhardt touted the relocation of the BLM’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, but a closer look shows that the “relocation” is just window dressing. Only 27 employees are slated to move to Grand Junction, including just 9 staff related to the agency’s director.
The rest of the 296 positions identified for relocation will be divvied up between field offices throughout the West. In Colorado, 58 staff will be sent to the Denver metro area, more than double the amount of employees staffing the ostensible headquarters.
Moving the BLM headquarters West is a political stunt
“This announcement is deeply unsettling and has created a lot of uncertainty for us,” one BLM employee told the Washington Post. “The best part of my job is my co-workers, and they are working to tear us apart for purely political reasons. I’m sick to my stomach.”
The substance of dismantling the agency’s headquarters doesn’t seem to make sense, but the politics certainly do. The lead proponent of moving BLM headquarters West has been Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who is currently facing a tough reelection fight. He met an ally in Interior Secretary Bernhardt, who grew up in Rifle, Colorado, just 60 miles down the road from Grand Junction. As reports trickled out about the proposed plan, Senator Gardner appeared to have advance notice, confirming the move to reporters before any official announcement from Secretary Bernhardt.
More cynically, the plan is being touted by oil and gas industry advocates as a way to permit more drilling on public lands. The Denver Post paraphrased a comment from Kathleen Sgamma, president of the oil and gas trade association Western Energy Alliance, that “it could become more difficult for BLM employees to block production when working in an area dependent on oil and gas for jobs.”
The Interior Department is moving forward quickly with its plan to dismantle BLM headquarters. Employees identified to move to Grand Junction are being asked for voluntary commitments by August 15, less than a month from now. The agency is looking to move all of the identified staff out of Washington by next year, when the lease on their office expires. Secretary Bernhardt is making quick work of his plan, which if left unaddressed will ultimately drain the BLM of its career leadership and sideline the agency where key decisions are made.