As BLM moves its headquarters to Colorado, many employees may not follow

(Alex Brandon | AP) In this July 16, 2019, file photo, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt listens during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. Less than half of employees are projected to go along when the Trump administration moves headquarters for the bureau overseeing the country’s vast public lands from Washington, to Grand Junction, Colo. The administration defends the shift West. Former bureau officials predict a brain drain that will weaken protections for hundreds of millions of acres.

Las Vegas • Opponents of the Trump administration’s plan to break up the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the country’s public lands bureau are warning of a brain drain, saying many staffers who are being reassigned are opting to quit rather than move out West.

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt defended the move Friday. Opponents have projected that the number of Bureau of Land Management staffers agreeing to move from headquarters could be as low as 15%, which Bernhardt said was "not consistent with what I've seen."

Speaking at a Las Vegas conference on Colorado River water supplies, Bernhardt said he did not immediately have firmer figures, however.

"A year from now ... you're going to find out that it worked really well," Bernhardt told reporters.

The Trump administration says the plan will save taxpayers millions of dollars, lead to better, faster decisions and trim a "top heavy" office in Washington. Moving the bureau out of Washington is a long-cherished goal of Western state politicians who cite the preponderance of public lands in their part of the country and their lack of access to decision-makers.

The deadline for most staffers to notify the land bureau, which is overseen by the Interior Department, whether they intended to move was Thursday. But the bureau had not yet compiled a count for how many staffers had so far agreed to relocate, spokesman Derrick Henry said.

The bureau oversees about 388,000 square miles of public lands, the vast majority of it in the U.S. West. It issues permits for oil and gas drilling, mining and ranching, manages outdoor recreation and enforces environmental protections.

Bernhardt has called for about 300 positions to be switched from Washington to other offices in 11 Western states, including Nevada, Arizona and Utah. About 25 will be going to the new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado.

"What we're going to see here is an incredible group of people," Bernhardt said, citing the quality of resumes the bureau was getting for jobs opening in Grand Junction. "Some people will come. Some won't come."

[Read more: BLM pulls back on Utah leases to do climate reviews]

Several Democratic lawmakers and an organization of former land bureau employees, the Public Lands Foundation, are among those opposing the move. They argue that breaking up and moving the bureau's headquarters staff across the American West would mean losing some of its most experienced employees.

"I think, frankly, it's going to cripple the bureau for a long time," said Henri Bisson, a former deputy director for the agency.

With fewer career staffers in Washington to weigh in on management of federal lands, "it will result in decisions that are more political than they are resource-based," Bisson said.

Employees who agree to move have 120 days to report to their new posts. Bisson and other former bureau officials who are talking to employees said it appears the majority of reassigned staffers will leave instead.

"Many of them are in families that have two careers, and their spouse can't move. They have kids in high school. They have ailing parents they are taking care of," said Kit Muller, who retired last year after 38 years with the bureau and is one of those projecting that fewer than half of reassigned staffers would move. "You can imagine the reasons."

Former bureau employee George Stone, director of the Public Lands Foundation, said the rationale that the move will give Western residents, county commissioners and elected officials better access to federal decision-makers doesn't make sense because most of the agency's 10,000 employees are already in field offices outside Washington.

Current staffer Dave Hu, a fisheries biologist, has been asked to move to a field office in Denver but has told the bureau he's trying to find a job with a different federal agency so he can stay in Washington. He hopes to have clarity in a few weeks, he said.

Hu said he knows many colleagues have elderly parents, homes and children that make it difficult to move.

"It's not an ideal way to do business, but it's an opportunity for me, and I think something will work out," said Hu, who has been with the bureau for nearly seven years. "I'm a 'fed,' and that's part of the deal I signed up for."

McCombs reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press reporter Ellen Knickmeyer contributed from Washington.