BLM headquarters is heading back to Washington

Interior Secretary Haaland said the bureau would expand its Western office in Grand Junction, Colo.

(Rick Bowmer | AP, pool) U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours near ancient dwellings along the Butler Wash trail during a visit to Bears Ears National Monument Thursday, April 8, 2021, near Blanding.

After a two-year sojourn in Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters is heading back to Washington, D.C., Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Friday during a meeting with BLM employees.

Haaland’s Republican predecessors orchestrated the 2019 migration of BLM’s executive staff to new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., and to already established state offices. The stated goal of that relocation was to bring land management leadership closer to the Western communities that are most connected to the public lands the agency oversees. But many career staffers quit or retired rather than move, and many positions had gone unfilled for months, leaving the new headquarters a rather quiet place.

“The past several years have been incredibly disruptive to the organization, to our public servants, and to their families. As we move forward, my priority is to revitalize and rebuild the BLM so that it can meet the pressing challenges of our time, and to look out for our employees’ well-being,” Haaland said Friday. “I look forward to continuing to work with Congress, Tribes, elected officials and the many stakeholders who care about the stewardship of our shared public lands and healthy communities.”

While leaders of Utah and other Western states praised the Trump administration’s decision to relocate BLM headquarters out West, the Biden administration’s plan to return it to the nation’s capital drew praise from environmental groups who characterized it as a first step toward fixing “the extensive damage” to a 7,000-employee agency that manages 11 percent of all the land in the United States, including 23 million acres in Utah.

“The weakness of the BLM is it is a heavily decentralized organization with a vast majority of staff scattered across the West and it’s good to have leadership staff in D.C. where they can work with the administration and Congress,” said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA. Trump’s decision to move the headquarters West “was a terrible political act intended to decimate the agency and to advance the re-election of a Republican senator in Colorado.”

Groene was referencing Sen. Cory Gardner, who was unseated in 2020 by Democrat John Hickenlooper. The former Colorado governor supported Trump’s decision to move the BLM headquarters to his state and more recently urged Biden to establish a “fully-fledged headquarters” in Grand Junction.

“We believe that such an effort must be more than symbolic and must include the staff and resources to improve management and protect our public land,” wrote Hickenlooper and fellow Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in a letter to Biden shortly after his inauguration. “A full headquarters in Colorado would not only grow the Western Colorado economy, but also send an important signal that rural America is an appropriate place for such a prestigious institution.”

Utah Rep. John Curtis, a Republican, said BLM headquarters should remain in the West.

“We rightfully moved their headquarters to Colorado, and closer to where administrators could dutifully conduct their responsibilities and be closer to the stakeholders involved,” he said. “Reversing this decision gives the power back to those with the most wealth and access and not the people actually affected by the Bureau.”

But SUWA and advocacy groups saw the move West as an attempt to force out career employees and hollow out the BLM’s leadership ranks.

“The American people deserve an agency with a seat at the table when important decisions are being made in Washington, said Jennifer Rokala: executive director for the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities. “This move [back to D.C.] will help the agency rebuild and ensure that top Bureau of Land Management officials can bring their concerns directly to lawmakers, Interior Department leadership and the White House.”

Under Trump, the BLM saw a string of interim leaders come and go, ending with William Perry Pendley, a property-rights lawyer who had previously made a career out of suing the BLM and questioning whether it was even appropriate for the federal government to own millions of acres.

Nine months into President Joe Biden tenure, the BLM leadership vacuum persists. His nominee for BLM director, Montanan Tracy Stone-Manning, has stalled amid allegations she was involved in a tree-spiking incident more than 30 years ago in Idaho.

Trump’s plan was to move 328 D.C. positions to Western state and district offices and Grand Junction. It proved to be a bust with a majority of those staff members choosing to quit.

“Only 41 of the affected people relocated, with 3 moving to Grand Junction,” Interior said in its announcement Friday. “This led to a significant loss of institutional memory and talent. The headquarters transition [back to D.C.] will be conducted with a goal of minimizing further disruption to employees and their families.”

The BLM, meanwhile, is not abandoning its 2-year-old presence in Grand Junction, but rather it will expand as the official Western headquarters.

“This office will reinforce Western perspectives in decision-making and have an important role to play in the bureau’s clean energy, outdoor recreation, conservation, and scientific missions, among other important work as a leadership center in the West,” the Interior Department said.

Haaland said the BLM will play a critical role in addressing the climate crisis, expanding public access to public lands and preserving the nation’s shared outdoor heritage.

She also affirmed a commitment to establish a recently congressional authorized BLM Foundation, which would focus on building new partnerships, and that the bureau would work to “strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes” and designate state tribal liaisons.

“It is imperative that the bureau have the appropriate structure and resources to serve the American public,” Haaland said. “There’s no doubt that the BLM should have a leadership presence in Washington, D.C., like all the other land management agencies, to ensure that it has access to the policy-, budget-, and decision-making levers to best carry out its mission.”