Tribune Editorial: Bring the government to the people?

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau, talks about protecting livestock water rights during a Livestock Grazing Rights Conference to address growing uncertainty facing Utah ranchers and rural communities at the Sevier Valley Center at the Richfield campus of Snow College in Richfield, Utah Thursday, February 18, 2016. Utah Farm Bureau has become increasingly concerned with the growing level of uncertainty ranchers who utilize the federally managed public lands are facing. An analysis of grazing numbers indicate a systematic dismantling of livestock grazing since the 1950s.

The head of the U.S. Department of the Interior is said to be toying with the idea of moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management out to the part of the country where the land it manages is.

Secretary Ryan Zinke, along with a couple of members of Congress from Colorado, are brainstorming a plan to move the BLM HQ and its 500-some staff members out to, say, Salt Lake City, or maybe Denver.

The idea, and it is reasonable enough, is that the vast majority of the 247 million acres of public land the agency is responsible for is in the West. West of the Mississippi. West of the Rockies. So are most of the agency’s nearly 9,000 other employees. So the managers should be out here, too.

But why, one may well ask, should this idea apply only to the BLM? Why not move the whole Interior Department to, well, the interior? And, while we are at it, how about moving NASA to Florida? The Commerce Department to Silicon Valley? The Agriculture Department to Nebraska? The Treasury Department to Wall Street?

With modern communication technology, there is not the need there was 200 years ago to have all the executive agencies in close physical proximity to one another and to Congress. So why not spread the power?

There are both opportunities and pitfalls to any of these scenarios.

On the positive side, getting more of the federal bureaucracy out of the federal city would create not only job and development opportunities for their new host cities, but also a chance for specialists, experts and academics in the relevant fields to build communities that would attract the best and brightest and allow them to come up with some really great ideas.

The risk, of course, is that, even with the latest in online teleconferencing, we might reach an out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation where Congress — and the national press — would begin to neglect their oversight responsibilities. And business lobbyists might find it that much easier to swarm about isolated agencies that are supposed to regulate them and do an even better job than they already do of regulating the regulators, to private benefit and public detriment.

But, then, so might public interest groups that are close to their constituencies have a better shot at influencing regulatory agencies if those agencies are down the street rather than across the country.

The image that Zinke and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, may have of bringing BLM to Utah is so it could be more effectively lobbied by the Utah Legislature, governor and other people who prefer their lands private and their natural resources extracted.

Of course, there are folks on the other side here, too. And folks from, say, the Southern Utah Wilderness Association or the Outdoor Retailers might just as easily gain from a devolution of power.

There’s a lot of thinking left to be done before lining up the moving vans. But it’s thinking that should be done.