Ogden • One thing is certain under the major reorganization Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has in mind for the sprawling federal department he oversees: The Bureau of Land Management headquarters will move West, where nearly all the nation’s public land is concentrated.
Salt Lake City has been viewed as a logical host city, but now an up-and-coming city 40 miles to the north has emerged as a possible contender.
A top Interior official, Susan Combs, toured northern Utah on Tuesday and joined a panel with Weber County commissioners extolling the virtues of Ogden, a historic rail town that now prides itself as one of the nation’s hottest outdoor recreation cities.
“We are supportive of the government here,” Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell told Combs, who is the acting assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. “Ogden has a great culture to it. Your people would find a great home here, with access to world-class activities and places to visit, and they could afford to do so.”
The exchange occurred at a roundtable hosted by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, whose congressional district includes Ogden. Combs laid out Zinke’s vision for making the BLM and other Interior agencies more responsive to Western communities associated with public lands.
“The goal is to reorganize by [distributing] power out … to where the problems are, where the facts are, the issues are on the ground,” Combs said. “The secretary wants all decision-making to be driven locally, so you see county commissioners, mayors and governors. You are at the forefront of everything that happens in your county, city and state.”
But conservation groups are pushing back against the idea that the Interior Department should grant more deference to local concerns than it already does.
“These are federal public lands that the BLM has a responsibility to manage on behalf of all Americans. We already have state offices in the West that are responsive to communities and stakeholders,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “In this administration, we have seen again and again short-term commodity interests are ruling the day and the longer-term interest in the ecological health of these places is ignored.”
Also on Tuesday’s panel were Bishop, R-Utah, and Gov. Gary Herbert, who did not name any particular city when he made his pitch that BLM headquarters belong in the state. Other Western cities under consideration include Denver; Grand Junction, Colo.; and Albuquerque, N.M.
“Moving the BLM [from Washington] to Utah will be far more than a symbolic gesture. It will actually generate better policy,” the Republican governor said. “It will alleviate the anger and anxiety we have out here. It will change the nature of the discourses and relations the Intermountain West has with the rest of the country.”
With Herbert inviting the BLM to put its headquarters in Utah, it appears state leaders no longer prioritize taking title to the public lands, a move that would evict the BLM from the state. Instead, leaders are embracing a less drastic goal of securing greater authority over how the BLM manages 23 million acres in Utah.
“This has potential to make Interior more efficient and more responsive to reflect more precisely what the people who live next to these public lands want to see take place,” Herbert said. “Secondly, it gives a chance to change the culture of the department.”
On paper, Salt Lake City would appear to be a more viable candidate than Ogden. The BLM’s state office is already in Utah’s capital city, which also sits at the junction of the Intermountain West’s two biggest freeways. And, Herbert noted, Salt Lake City has a major airport undergoing a $3.6 billion expansion.
But Bishop noted that Ogden has plenty of available federal office space and its own airport. Ogden hosts regional offices of the U.S. Forest Service and the IRS; Hill Air Force Base is nearby.
“We love being involved with the federal government,” said County Commissioner Scott Jenkins. “We provide something here we don’t think anyone else can. We are a blue-collar county. People love living in Weber County. It’s a wonderful place to live.”
The Interior Department oversees the BLM, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies.
“The bureaus grew up with different regional maps,” Combs said. “Today we have eight separate bureaus with what looks like a spaghetti array of 49 separate regions. It is bewildering.”
Last week, Zinke released a map outlining his plan to align these bureaus into 12 common regions. Utah would reside in the largest, sharing a new Region 7 with Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. This area currently accounts for 33,000 Interior employees.
“It’s going to be systemic change, and that has to be done concurrently so you have BLM talking all the time to National Park Service and everybody having the same lens," Combs said. “Yes, different missions, but they are looking at the same circumstances.”
Herbert believes such an alignment of the Interior Department is long overdue. It can take too long, he argued, for companies to get permits to drill, mine or install utility lines because the department’s agencies don’t coordinate their oversight.
“We would like them to speak with one voice and work together for the good of the whole. That’s something that could change with this reorganization, calling them regional boundaries,” Herbert said. “It’s a step in the right direction so we don’t have this mismatch and this overlap where we don’t know who’s in charge.”