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Debate still rages over BLM relocation as GJ headquarters remains a ghost town

June 9, 2021, 8:17 am
The BLM manages 8.3 million acres of federal land in Colorado, including the Eagle River Extensive Recreation Management Area locally (BLM photo).

On a recent blustery spring morning in Grand Junction, the parking lot outside the small office building at 760 Horizon Drive steadily filled up as the workday began. Employees filed in and headed towards office suites emblazoned with corporate logos: Shaw Construction, ProStar GeoCorp, Moody Insurance Agency, Chevron.

None, however, could be seen entering the Robert F. Burford Bureau of Land Management Headquarters, which occupies space on the building’s first and third floors. The national headquarters of the BLM, which employs more than 10,000 people and manages more than 245 million acres of public land across the country, was, by all appearances, deserted. A security guard told a Newsline reporter that no one from the agency was available, as employees were “mostly teleworking.”

Behind a closed glass door, tucked to the side in an empty reception area, a poster read: “Your public lands matter.”

Few federal agencies were more deeply impacted by four years of the Trump administration than the BLM, which found itself charged with spearheading Republican efforts to achieve “energy dominance” on America’s public lands and transformed by a sweeping 2019 relocation plan that moved its headquarters to Grand Junction and reassigned hundreds of senior positions away from Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration and its allies, including former Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, called the move a “reorganization.” Critics said it was more like an evisceration.

“I thought it was a bad idea at the time, and certainly nothing has changed,” Bob Abbey, a former BLM director who led the agency from 2009 to 2012, said in an interview. “It was nothing more than a poorly disguised attempt to destroy the Bureau of Land Management from the inside.”

Ex-BLM employees and public-lands advocates paint a dire picture of what happened to the agency following the relocation, which was announced by Gardner and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native and longtime oil lobbyist, in July 2019. It’s a picture that was backed up by figures released by the Interior Department following President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January; out of hundreds of positions affected by the move, Interior officials said, 287 employees chose to resign or retire from the agency, while 41 accepted relocation. The latter number, however, includes employees who relocated to BLM field offices scattered throughout the West as part of a broader reorganization.

BLM HQ in GJ (Chase Woodruff photo).

The number of employees who relocated to Grand Junction, BLM officials confirmed this week, is three.

“Of the 41 BLM Employees who relocated, three moved to Grand Junction and the rest to State Offices across the West,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement issued to Newsline.

The new disclosure comes as the Biden administration works to rebuild the agency after four years of departures and disruptions. Under Bernhardt’s successor, Secretary Deb Haaland, the Interior Department is weighing a host of critical questions involving the BLM’s future, from a review of its oil and gas leasing programs to efforts to support the “30 by 30” conservation agenda — and, not least, whether the relocation of the agency’s headquarters to a small city in western Colorado can be salvaged, or was fatally flawed from the start.

It’s a decision that has forged unlikely alliances in Colorado political circles and pitted local boosterism against questions of effective agency management — and at the center of it all is a nearly empty office suite in Grand Junction that many in government and public-lands advocacy view as a punch line.

“It is a joke,” Abbey said. “It would be humorous if there weren’t a lot of people whose livelihoods are dependent upon the Bureau of Land Management doing their job. And when that job’s not being performed, at any level of the organization, then it’s a disservice to the public that BLM employees are supposed to be serving.”

Confirmation hearing set for Tuesday

There aren’t many environmental or public-lands issues on which Rep. Lauren Boebert, the controversial first-term GOP congresswoman who represents Grand Junction, finds herself aligned with top Colorado Democrats like Sen. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Joe Neguse and Gov. Jared Polis. But all four agree that maintaining a headquarters for the BLM in Grand Junction is the right decision.

“Westerners deserve a voice in the land-use decisions that affect their lives daily,” Boebert, who has introduced legislation requiring the agency to keep its headquarters in Grand Junction, said in a statement earlier this year. “Since 99% of the lands that the Bureau manages are West of the Mississippi, it only makes sense to have the agency located close to the communities it serves.”

Hickenlooper, in particular, has emerged as a champion of maintaining a BLM headquarters in Grand Junction. The first-term senator, who unseated Gardner in the 2020 election to help Democrats narrowly take control of the Senate, has used his position on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to protect one of his predecessor’s signature accomplishments, lobbying Haaland and other Biden appointees on the issue.

He’ll get another chance to make his case on Tuesday, when the committee holds a confirmation hearing for Biden’s pick to lead the BLM, veteran environmental advocate Tracy Stone-Manning. Hickenlooper’s office said that in a June 4 meeting, the senator and Stone-Manning “discussed several Colorado priorities, including restoring the BLM’s commitment to protecting public lands and maintaining the agency’s headquarters in Grand Junction.”

“Tracy Stone-Manning values public lands as much as Coloradans do and has experience working with Western communities on responsible stewardship,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “We discussed her vision for the agency and I’m confident she’ll give full consideration to the benefits of housing the BLM out West.”

If confirmed, Stone-Manning would be the BLM’s first permanent director in more than four years. Under Trump, the agency was led by a series of acting directors — none more notorious than William Perry Pendley, who was tapped by Bernhardt to lead in the agency in 2019. Pendley, the longtime director of the Lakewood-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, had long advocated for federal public lands to be transferred to the states and private interests, in addition to routinely denying the science of climate change and making a host of other controversial comments, including likening undocumented immigrants to “a cancer.” He faced legal challenges to his authority as acting director of the BLM, and a federal judge ruled in September 2020 that he had been serving unlawfully.

In the view of many experts and advocates, it’s impossible to separate Pendley’s troubled tenure at the head of the agency from the devastating impact of the reorganization on its senior leadership. By forcing out hundreds of career employees in the BLM’s D.C. headquarters — employees who, because of civil-service protections, could not easily be fired — Bernhardt and Pendley were able to concentrate decision-making power within a tightly-knit circle of Trump appointees.

“The result of the relocation,” Abbey said, “is that it allowed for most if not all public land management decisions to be made by political appointees within the office of the Secretary of the Interior, rather than by employees living closer to the public lands whose decisions are primarily influenced by best available information and public input.”

Circumventing careful review processes overseen by career civil servants, critics say, helped Trump’s BLM dramatically increase oil and gas lease sales, roll back a slew of Obama-era environmental regulations and make sweeping changes sought by industrial interests to many of its resource management plans.

“Getting rid of the career staff who know the law, who know how to implement (the Federal Land Policy and Management Act) and things like that, was the goal the entire time,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation group.

Unlikely allies

In supporting the Grand Junction headquarters, Colorado Democrats find themselves at odds with other members of their party and allies in the conservation community, many of whom remain deeply suspicious of the motives behind the move and doubtful that the BLM can be restored to full strength without returning to Washington.

In a February letter to Biden, Polis touted the economic benefits that the relocation had delivered to Colorado, and warned against “associating this with the many other misguided legacies of your predecessor.”

“While the Trump administration’s lack of knowledge of the West framed this initiative for him as one of energy dominance, the opportunity for you is to see this initiative as an opportunity for locally driven conservation,” Polis wrote. “Where he seemed to think it would favor extractive industries, I know that Coloradans across our state realize the need to conserve the places we love.”

In their own letter to Biden in January, Hickenlooper and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet suggested that the Trump administration had erred only by relocating a few dozen jobs to Grand Junction, rather than hundreds.

“The Trump administration did not follow through on their commitment to Grand Junction,” wrote Hickenlooper and Bennet. “While this is a reasonable start and is appreciated by the Western Slope, the job is far from finished. … We believe that such an effort must be more than symbolic and must include the staff and resources to improve management and protect our public land.”

That’s not a view shared by many conservation advocates and ex-BLM officials, who argue that the agency can maintain a headquarters in Grand Junction, or it can effectively navigate a complex federal bureaucracy to manage public lands — but it can’t do both.

“I certainly understand why that argument is being made by elected officials in Colorado,” Abbey said. “It’s just the wrong decision relative to how agencies should be organized and managed. The national leadership team needs to be within the Washington, D.C. area, given the need for daily interactions and communication with a wide variety of groups and other agencies.”

A ‘ghost town’

Nearly two years after the move was announced, many of the consequences of the BLM’s reorganization remain shrouded in confusion — starting with the question of how many people are even working at its new national headquarters, or what kind of work they’re doing there.

“It sounds like it’s been a ghost town,” Weiss said. “Especially with the pandemic, it’s quite possible that a number of folks accepted a move on paper, but have been working remotely since then.”

A BLM spokesperson told Newsline that 41 senior positions “are assigned to” the Grand Junction headquarters, but declined to say how many are working there in person. “Employees with telework agreements and supervisor approval are authorized to work from home to reduce risks associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

Nearly half of the roughly 300 headquarters positions that were reassigned to BLM offices across the West are currently vacant, the agency said. As announced in February, the agency is currently undertaking a review of the 2019 reorganization, but it declined to say when any determinations are expected to be made.

“Interior leadership has committed to assessing the impacts of recent structural changes to the BLM and what, if any, changes can or should be made,” an agency spokesperson said. “Accordingly, the BLM continues to engage staff, assess employee and stakeholder feedback, and develop appropriate strategies to strengthen the agency and its workforce.”

Many observers don’t expect Colorado Democrats’ efforts to preserve the new BLM headquarters to be successful. A transition memo authored by a team of close Biden allies in November 2020 urged the incoming administration to “immediately begin reversing damage to BLM by returning its headquarters and at least some staff to Washington.” Advocates predict that it’s only a matter of time before the agency, currently rebuilding its leadership team on the fly, follows through on those plans.

“I’m pretty confident that they will look at the numbers, and say, ‘Wow, this has been an epic failure, we need to fix it quickly in order to have a functioning agency,’” Weiss said. “And clearly, that’s not going to work in Grand Junction for a number of reasons.”

“Could there be a role for a Bureau of Land Management Western office or regional hub in Grand Junction? Certainly,” Weiss added.

In his February letter to Biden, Polis also opened the door to a solution that would preserve some senior BLM jobs in Colorado while others returned to D.C.: “It is undoubtedly in your and the Secretary of Interior’s purview to decide where specific positions are located, and it is understandable that a handful of top positions may be housed at Interior’s Headquarters,” wrote Polis. “It is less important to have any one or few specific positions in any one location. Rather what is more important is to have a significant, growing, and valuable contingent of Bureau of Land Management leadership located in the communities, and in touch with the lands the agency manages.”

“There needs to be a decision made soon,” Abbey said. “It’s taken a little longer than I would have anticipated for a good decision to have been made. And as a result of that decision not being made, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. It’s really difficult to recruit and hire staff when you really don’t know where people may be located.”

With the BLM poised to be at the center of major federal policymaking efforts on climate change, clean energy, biodiversity protections, outdoor recreation and more over the next several years, public lands advocates are eager to leave that uncertainty behind. They hope that Stone-Manning’s confirmation can begin to close the book on a tumultuous few years at the agency — and, perhaps, on the strange chapter of its deserted Colorado headquarters.

“Having 40 jobs in Grand Junction is great,” said Weiss. “It’s tough to make the case that you should hamstring an agency for the rest of the agency’s life for the sake of 40 jobs in Grand Junction.” HELP US GROW Make a tax-deductible donation.

Editor’s note: This story first ran Monday (June 7) in Colorado Newsline, which ran a follow-up on the Senate BLM director confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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