Gehrke: Moving a big piece of the Interior Department to Utah isn’t a terrible idea, but don’t expect it to change how the lands are managed

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Susan Combs, the Interior Department's Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget talks with U.S. Representative for Utah's 1st congressional district and U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, prior to meeting with Governor Gary Herbert, right, Utah representatives, Weber County elected leaders and a business owner during a panel discussion in Ogden, Aug. 28, 2018 to hear how the Department of Interior reorganization could benefit Utah.

Last week, Susan Combs, a top adviser to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, was in Utah to meet with state officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Rob Bishop about the department’s ongoing efforts to decentralize the agency, pushing people out of Washington and into the states.

Zinke was unable to make it, since a journey on horseback, his preferred mode of travel, was impractical.

The restructuring is music to the ears of people like Herbert and Bishop, who have long complained that decisions that impact Utahns shouldn’t be made by pencil-pushing eggheads in Washington, D.C.

And they’re not entirely wrong. It conceivably could make the agencies more responsive to the locals. But they’re also ignoring a few basic facts.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

First, with 70,000 employees spread across 2,400 offices throughout the country, the Interior Department is already remarkably dispersed.

And that’s as it should be. After all, you can’t manage hundreds of millions of acres of national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, waterways and public lands without having literal boots on the ground.

The department employs more than 2,000 people in Utah alone, and it’s these workers who keep the department functioning on a day-to-day basis. Many of these employees, contrary to the caricature of a Deep State swamp creature, are very much rooted in the communities where they work.

Fewer than 10 percent of the department’s employees are based in Washington.

Consider this: During Combs’ visit, Herbert was pushing for Interior to move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters to the state, while Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, was advocating specifically for Ogden.

How many jobs are we talking about? The BLM, which is the largest agency within Interior, has just 312 employees based in Washington. And a lot of them are there not because of some plot for centralized control, but because it makes sense for them to be there.

That includes senior-level political appointees and high-level career employees. It includes all the staff who interact with Congress, the top-level attorneys responsible for the department’s legal work, or those who coordinate with other D.C.-based departments.

They aren’t going anywhere and, let’s be honest, the big decisions — whether to create or destroy national monuments, whether to rewrite grazing or oil and gas drilling rules, whether to push for tar sands development or drill in wildlife refuges — are all decisions that will still be made in Washington, either by the department, the White House or Congress.

The remainder of Interior employees who can relocate likely won’t be moving any time soon. Zinke sent an email to staff recently that assured them that nobody would be forced to move and nobody would be laid off as a result of the reorganization. That likely means an evolution over years, not a revolution in months.

There are other bugs that need to be worked out. For example, right now different agencies divide the country up in a patchwork of regional offices, depending on the mission — whether it’s, say, the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Bureau of Reclamation.

Zinke is proposing to create 12 regional offices that roughly follow state boundaries. But his plan would mean that the same office in charge of the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park would be responsible for the Rio Grande in west Texas, but the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area would be split between two regions.

Likewise, the Navajo Nation would be split between two offices when it comes to educational and health programs provided through the Bureau of Indian Affairs — the New Mexico and Utah side in one region, the Arizona side of the nation in another.

That’s just not right.

The point is, while decentralizing operations within Interior makes sense in concept and probably is a good idea, Zinke, Combs and their colleagues have a lot of work left to make it a reality.

And Utah leaders, like Herbert and Bishop, who see this as a seismic shift that will bring a flood of new jobs and revolutionize land management across the region, are probably going to be disappointed.