Following through on one of his predecessor’s key initiatives, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is expected to announce Tuesday that he will move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters from Washington, D.C., out West.
While Salt Lake City and Ogden would have been centrally located cities for the agency’s national office, Utah was not selected, although some BLM staffers could be transferred to offices here.
The headquarters will be established in Grand Junction, Colo., an oil and gas industry hub, according to Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who praised the move because it will bring the agency closer to the lands it administers.
“The problem with Washington is too many policymakers are far removed from the people they are there to serve. Ninety-nine percent of the land the BLM manages is west of the Mississippi River, and so should be the BLM headquarters," Gardner said in a prepared statement. "This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands, and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government.”
Ryan Zinke, a onetime Montana congressman, had proposed moving the BLM headquarters from his first day as President Donald Trump’s interior secretary, as part of a larger effort to reorganize Interior’s various agencies. Zinke left office under a cloud of ethics investigations early this year and was succeeded by his No. 2, Bernhardt, a native Coloradoan who had previously worked for the BLM and later as an oil and gas industry lobbyist.
According to reporting by The Washington Post, Bernhardt plans to relocate 77 staffers, or one-fifth of the BLM’s 350-member Washington workforce, to Western cities, mostly to Grand Junction, at a cost of about $4 million. E&E News broke the story Monday, identifying Grand Junction as the likely headquarters site.
The BLM administers 42 percent of the land in Utah, or 23 million acres, plus the minerals under 8 million acres of national forest. Nationally it oversees 245 million acres, nearly all of it in Western states, and many more acres of offshore oil and gas reserves. After 2½ years of the Trump administration, the BLM has yet to have a permanent director. Casey Hammond is the latest in a string of acting directors to head the agency.
Already the vast majority of the BLM’s 9,260 employees work in state headquarters and field offices, such as those in Salt Lake City, Vernal, Moab and Richfield.
Where Western politicians see greater efficiency and responsiveness in pushing even more BLM staff into the West, environmental activists see political theater and waste.
“This move is a solution in search of a problem," said Athan Manuel, director of public lands protection for Sierra Club. “Spending millions to relocate when there are existing regional offices, billions in park maintenance backlog on the books, and costs still rolling in from Trump’s Independence Day extravagance is just foolhardy.”
Like Gardner, Utah’s political leaders had viewed the BLM’s proposed move favorably, especially if the new headquarters wound up in Salt Lake City or Ogden.
“Moving the BLM [from Washington] to Utah will be far more than a symbolic gesture. It will actually generate better policy,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said last year at a forum on Interior reorganization hosted by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. “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.”
A spokeswoman for Herbert declined comment until Interior makes an official announcement. The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Bishop on Monday praised Bernhardt’s “thoughtful, methodical approach,” calling it “a true win for the West.”
“I’m pleased that a significant number of personnel will be coming to Utah and other Western states," he said. "The BLM personnel will be moved where they will have a greater impact on, and input by, the people who live in the regions where their influence is greatest. Not by bureaucrats from thousands of miles away.”
Critics, however, were quick to denounce BLM’s relocation.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who heads the House Natural Resources Committee, linked the move to the Trump administration’s American energy dominance agenda, which he argues is geared more toward pandering to industry and cutting staff, rather than serving the public.
"Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s home town [of Rifle, Colo.] just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability," he said in a prepared statement Monday. "The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward."
Grijalva is also concerned that the BLM will lose many valued employees who might not want to leave Washington. “I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here,” he said.
Environmental activists also eye the move with skepticism.
“Bringing jobs to a Western community like Grand Junction is a laudable goal, but this announcement is nothing but a P.R. stunt," said Jennifer Rokala, executive director for the Center for Western Priorities.
“More than 90 percent of BLM staff already work outside of Washington, D.C., and the agency has dozens of offices across the West,” she said. “Moving senior BLM leadership would only turn the agency into an afterthought, rather than a core piece of the Interior Department.”
Tribune reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this story.