Good policy or bad decision? Opinions differ on relocation of Bureau of Land Management headquarters

In this Oct. 11, 2019 photo, U.S. Bureau of Land Management Acting Director William "Perry" Pendley speaks at a conference for journalists in Fort Collins, Colorado. A new report from the Government Accountability Office highlights violence against employees for the BLM and other agencies amid heightened tensions with anti-government groups. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

ST. GEORGE — About a year after the Bureau of Land Management first announced it would be relocating around 300 employees from the Washington D.C. office to the West, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt officially signed Secretary’s Order 3382 reestablishing the BLM headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado on Tuesday.

In this file photo, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt listens during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, District of Columbia, July 16, 2019 | Photo by Alex Brandon, courtesy of the Associated Press, St. George News

According to a press release issued by the BLM, the relocating of the federal agency headquarters benefits the bureau by moving the federal agency closer to both the land it administers and its employees.

“This relocation strengthens our relationship with communities in the West by ensuring decisionmakers are living and working closer to the lands they manage for the American people. This effort will also save a great deal of money that can be reinvested in our field operations,” Bernhardt said.

Yet others see this relocation as a move to decentralize the BLM.

The agency first announced in July 2019 that it would be moving some 300 BLM employees based in Washington D.C. to the West. Then around late October, these employees received a letter giving them 30 days to accept the move or risk losing their jobs, according to an article by The Hill.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

Jen Ujifusa, the legislative director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told St. George News this move has been in the process for some time, and the final signing was just a formality.

“We see this as part and parcel of the Trump Administration’s governing philosophy of, you know, destruction and chaos,” she said. “What we’ve seen across the board is that the strategy has been to dismantle agencies from within. And by moving the BLM West, they are taking steps to do that.”

More broadly, Ujifusa said it’s going to make coordination between agencies and between the BLM and congress much more difficult, and thereof, much less likely.

“It has already forced out a number of career employees. They got very short notice to move to Colorado and uproot their lives. Many of them had to take stock and make a choice of leaving for other agencies or the private sector or retirement.”

President Donald Trump speaks at the Interior Department in Washington. The president is proposing dramatically reducing the taxes paid by corporations big and small in an overhaul his administration says will spur economic growth and bring jobs and prosperity to the middle class. Washington, D.C., April 26, 2017 | AP Photo by Carolyn Kaster, St. George News

By doing this, Ujifusa said the Trump Administration has been very effective at driving out career employees and consolidating power in the hands of political appointees.

“That’s obviously very bad for public lands in the West because it will deemphasize good policy and has removed some of the people who might have stood up for it at the agency,” she said.

Yet, in the BLM’s press release, Casey Hammond, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the interior for land and minerals management for the BLM, said the BLM leadership is called on a day-to-day basis to make decisions that impact the lives of families in the West, which makes location a prime factor and is largely beneficial.

“There are neither maps nor memos that replace the wisdom gained by putting your feet in the dirt of the land you manage and speaking face-to-face with the individuals who must live with the consequences of those decisions,” Hammond said. “This is how you build trust with those we serve.”

“The BLM strives to be a good neighbor and responsible steward of America’s public lands. Relocating our headquarters West furthers that effort,” Hammond added.

The hike to The Wave in Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area, Ariz., date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs, exercising the authority of the director, William Perry Pendley, reiterated Hammond’s statement but added that the employees who were unable to move were not left without a job.

“We also worked hard to ensure that each of those employees unable to move found a job in the Washington, D.C. metro area,” Pendley said. “And the folks who wanted to move West are — or soon will be — settled in various Western cities.”

By the end of August, most assigned staff will be on duty in the headquarters office.

St. George News reached out to the BLM for further comment about how many employees had resigned but has not yet received a response.

In a March article, The Hill reported that, following the announcement of the plan, the BLM lost more than half of its D.C.-based staff who were supposed to relocate. More than half of the 167 employees left the agency either before they could be reassigned or rather than take the new offered position.

The article quotes Steve Ellis, who retired from the BLM’s top career-level post in 2016, as saying, “This is a huge brain drain. There is a lot of really solid expertise walking out the door.”

Ujifusa said her worry was less about who would replace the people who lost their jobs but rather that those positions would not be replaced at all, which would further consolidate the power to the political wing of the agency.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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