Interior to shift 44 jobs to Utah, move BLM headquarters to Colorado

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The Bureau of Land Management released an environmental review of San Juan County's application for a right-of-way through Recapture Canyon, inhabited by Anasazi more than 800 years ago, in September of 2016. This file photo shows the canyon, east of Blanding.

Although Utah lost in the competition for the Bureau of Land Management’s future headquarters, its Republican governor hailed the agency’s freshly unveiled reorganization, which will see nearly all of its senior leadership and national programs relocated to Western states.

“Moving key decision makers closer to the lands where their decisions will have the greatest impact is a win for everyone,” Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday, joining Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, in welcoming the decision to move the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction.

The plan, announced Tuesday by the Interior Department, would also shift 44 BLM jobs from D.C. to Utah, where the BLM administers 23 million acres, or 43 percent of the state.

While incurring some upfront relocation costs, the bureaucratic overhaul affecting nearly 300 positions is expected to save $50 million to $100 million over the next 20 years, according to top Interior officials who crafted the plan at the behest of Ryan Zinke, President Donald Trump’s first Interior secretary.

“This approach will play an invaluable role in serving the American people more efficiently while also advancing the Bureau of Land Management’s multiple-use mission,” said Interior Secretary David Berhardt, a former oil and gas industry lobbyist who succeeded Zinke, in a statement. “Shifting critical leadership positions and supporting staff to Western states — where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located — is not only a better management system, it is beneficial to the interest of the American public in these communities, cities, counties and states.”

The long anticipated move drew jeers from public lands advocates, who see Bernhardt’s plan as an effort to dismantle the agency’s leadership and give industry and conservative Western political leaders greater influence over land management decisions.

“Secretary Bernhardt makes this move knowing full well that it will be the most effective way to shed experienced staff and weaken the agency. More than 95% of BLM employees are already out West, so this shuffle solves for a problem that isn’t really there and creates another: BLM will have virtually no presence in the city where key decisions are made,” Kate Kelly, public lands director for the Center for American Progress, said.

“To believe this is about serving Western communities requires one to ignore that the Trump Administration hasn’t bothered to nominate a BLM director, has consistently tried to slash the agency’s budget, and has reversed career employees’ decisions since Day One,” she continued. “This has nothing to do with what is good for the BLM, or the communities they serve, and everything to do with undermining the federal workforce.”

A new national BLM headquarters will be established in Grand Junction, an oil and gas hub not far from Bernhardt’s hometown, where 27 senior-level employees and support staff will be relocated over the next 15 months. This transition window coincides with the end of the BLM’s lease on its current headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Another 222 D.C.-based positions will be relocated into various state offices, while 74 will be phased out and the positions reallocated to these offices to use to fulfill their missions, Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.

“Most of the work the bureau gets done is at the state and local level. What we are doing in this administration is pushing more of the decision-making out and down in the organization chart,” Balash said. “It gets done in the public lands with the people who use public lands and that’s out in the West.”

Sixty-one positions associated with budgets and congressional affairs will remain in Washington. Balash said the savings will come from housing 300 fewer staffers in some of the nation’s priciest office space and by utilizing available space in the BLM’s state and field offices.

A vocal cheerleader for reorganization, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he will work with Interior to help determine that those positions coming to Utah are placed in the most effective areas.

“Secretary Bernhardt’s efforts have brought logic to where these positions will be most effective,” Bishop said, "and I sincerely hope that politics and dogma in Washington don’t stifle this effort to make government more responsive.”

Interior also looked at Denver and cities in Utah, Idaho and New Mexico for a new headquarters.

“We decided on Grand Junction in part because we wanted the headquarters to stand alone, not necessarily to overshadow one of our state offices,” Balash said.

He said the BLM’s national programs will be relocated to states where it makes the most sense for them to be based. For example, the timber program will land in Oregon, renewable energy in Nevada and Southern California, grazing in Idaho and wild horse and burro management in Nevada.

Utah will get 10 positions associated with the BLM’s National Conservation Lands program, which covers 34 millions acres of national monuments, wilderness study areas and other places designated to preserve special natural features, such as Utah’s Bears Ears, Indian Creek, the Grand Staircase and Escalante Canyons.

“Given the growth in recreation opportunities across [Utah], these positions will provide increased support to the field while offering improved coordination with external partners and direct exposure to the resources the Division manages,” Balash wrote in a letter Tuesday to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Also shipped to Utah will be three law enforcement officials, 10 communications specialists, 11 resources planners and three staffers handling minerals. Another seven D.C.-based positions will be eliminated and reallocated to Utah for the state office to make new hires as it sees fit to meet its mission.