Washington • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is considering moving the headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management to the West — perhaps in Salt Lake City or Denver — as he works to reorganize the department to move power out of Washington.
“We’re certainly looking at where would be the right place,” Zinke told The Salt Lake Tribune, noting that the “preponderance of activity is in the West” for BLM’s activities.
The BLM manages 247 million acres of public land, most of it in the West, and while it has offices in Western states, top decisions flow out of the nation’s capital.
The agency has 8,906 permanent employees, with 503 based in Washington and 8,403 in the field, according to the latest numbers.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, said it makes more sense to put the people in charge closer to the lands they manage, just as the military puts generals in the field and not just at the Pentagon.
“There’s a lot of anger out there in Utah on federal land policies emanating from Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Public lands belong to the public; they don’t belong to Washington, D.C.”
Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, both Colorado Republicans, introduced legislation in May that would authorize moving the BLM’s headquarters to a Western state.
“Moving BLM’s headquarters West is a commonsense solution that Coloradans from across the political spectrum support,” Gardner said at the time. “Ninety-nine percent of the nearly 250 million acres of land managed by BLM is west of the Mississippi River, and having the decision-makers present in the communities they impact will lead to better policy.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and head of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he supports the concept of reorganizing the BLM with top officials in the West — if it is done right.
“The important element is having people who are willing to listen, and I think Zinke is bringing that mindset to the agency,” Bishop said this week. “If having them actually closer to the people they actually manage helps makes them listen, that’s positive.”
But, he noted, physical location is only better if the people at the top have the right approach.
“You can have a jerk situated in Salt Lake, too,” Bishop said. “So the important part is actually having a department that cares and wants to listen to people and that’s the big issue. Having them in Salt Lake City perhaps gives us greater opportunity and chance to have them responsible; we’ll see, but it doesn’t guarantee it.”
How fast such a decision could be made and how much it would cost remain unclear.
Matt Lee-Ashley, who served as deputy chief of staff at Interior and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, sees talk of moving the headquarters as a “PR ploy” because most BLM employees already are in the field.
“Right now, BLM has a small footprint in Washington, D.C., and moving the headquarters is only going to waste taxpayer money on relocation expenses and extra travel,” Lee-Ashley said. “It’s also going to make it harder for Congress and the inspector general to conduct their oversight of the agency — raising the risk for waste, fraud and abuse.”