A top congressional leader is calling on the Biden administration to reverse a Trump-era decision to uproot the federal government’s land management agency and scatter its employees across the West.
Under the Trump administration, leaders moved the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from Washington to Grand Junction, Colo., a town of about 60,000 in the state’s Republican-leaning Western slope, while dispersing the rest of its D.C.-based employees to different offices.
Data released by the Biden administration found 87 percent of BLM’s D.C.-based employees left the agency as the relocation was being carried out.
The new letter from House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-A.Z.) marks the first major call to return BLM and its employees to Washington.
“BLM will be most effective if its headquarters and senior staff return to Washington, D.C.,” Grijavla wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
“The BLM headquarters is now housed more than 1,000 miles away from those of the other federal agencies responsible for protecting our public lands. This distance, simply put, serves no legitimate purpose. It is already putting needless barriers between BLM and its partner agencies, and between BLM and the Department as a whole.”
Even prior to the move, just a couple hundred of BLM’s 10,000 employees were stationed in Washington.
But while the Trump administration claimed the move would help bring staffers closer to the lands they manage, critics, including a number of former BLM employees, saw it as a way to hamstring an agency that can sometimes stand in the way of oil and gas development and grazing on public lands.
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“As we’ve been saying for several years now the BLM headquarters move was not a move, it was an evisceration designed to break the agency,” said Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities.
“So moving the headquarters or reestablishing the headquarters in Washington, D.C. makes sense and Secretary Haaland ought to move quickly to do that.”
Still, returning to D.C. poses some complications. The small number of employees who did relocate with the agency have moved within the last year, uprooting their lives amid the pandemic.
Steve Ellis, who held the highest-ranking career position at BLM under the Obama administration, opposed the move and agreed with Grijalva that the headquarters should be moved back to D.C. But he said the bureau may want to address top BLM leadership and headquarters staff differently.
“This leadership, the key staff and advisors, all need to come back to the nation’s capital. But the staff scattered to state offices in the West – I would look at that more surgically as far as where they should be,” Ellis said.
Staffers dealing with legislative affairs issues who were moved to Reno, Nev., and those dealing with oil and gas across the country who were placed in New Mexico, would need to come back, he said.
A scathing report from the Government Accountability Office in March of last year found BLM largely failed to justify the relocation, did little to determine how the move would improve the agency, excluded employees from having a say in the process and failed to do a proper analysis on a number of factors.
Reporting from The Hill found Interior did a meager two-page cost-benefit analysis to justify the move.
The Hill also learned that the move would split apart the team that reviews the environmental impacts of public lands decisions.
“Viewed in light of the damaging and foreseeable consequences of the move, the total lack of substantive rationale for the reorganization strongly suggested that it was intended to cripple the agency,” Grijalva wrote.
“Allowing this move to stand would only justify the Trump administration’s bad-faith efforts and could open the door to similarly destructive actions under future administrations.”