WASHINGTON — A majority of Colorado’s Congress members support a plan to move the national headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to Colorado or another western state, but many environmentalists oppose it.
Lawmakers say relocating the agency from Washington, D.C., to Colorado would be a coup for the state and would improve land management by putting employees closer to their work. Opponents, including groups such as Western Values Project and veterans of the Interior Department, say the proposed move is a political ploy that will leave the agency weaker and removed from the power center of Washington.
The BLM has a sweeping portfolio, managing more than 245 million acres of federal land and 800 million acres of mineral estate — primarily in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon.
The Trump administration is also considering a move for the USGS, a science agency that studies the landscape, ecosystems, and natural hazards.
“For moving some headquarters west, I am very committed to working to achieve that,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native, told lawmakers at a hearing earlier this month.
USGS officials are eyeing the Denver area, according to the Interior Department, and the BLM could be in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, or another western state.
The proposed relocation is part of a larger agency reorganization plan the Trump administration wants Congress to fund with $27 million. The plan was hatched under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned late last year amid a flurry of ethics probes. Zinke had pushed to put his stamp on the agency with a reorganization, developed in response to an early directive from the White House to look for ways to streamline the executive branch.
“I do believe fundamentally that moving some more of our folks west has a very big benefit,” Bernhardt said at a hearing on Capitol Hill, citing the potential savings on travel costs and real estate for the agency, and lower cost-of-living for employees. “Most importantly, having them near the lands they manage has a meaningful benefit, if they are able to see what is going on, that is a good perspective.”
The potential for a BLM move is gaining the most attention. Some key western lawmakers from across the West love the idea, and are courting BLM for their home states.
At recent congressional hearings, Republicans from Colorado, Utah, and Nevada all said their states would make a fine home for the BLM, which could move about 400 employees west.
Both of Colorado’s senators have asked for BLM to make its home in the state. Sens. Cory Gardner (R) and Michael Bennett (D) have said Grand Junction is an ideal location because of its central location and existing federal facilities.
Gardner has proposed legislation calling for a move, asked about it at confirmation hearings, and touted it at meetings. He recently tweeted photos of himself with the state director of the BLM, saying they discussed the headquarters move.
“Secretary Bernhardt and I have had many conversations about the relocation plan, and I will continue to encourage the Department to choose Colorado as the BLM’s new home,” Gardner said in a statement.
Gardner was elected in a Republican wave in 2014, but is now considered the most vulnerable incumbent GOP senator heading into 2020.
Members of Colorado’s House delegation also have pushed for BLM to bring its headquarters to the state. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) joined the three Colorado Republicans to co-sponsor a bill calling on BLM to move its offices west, and Rep. Jason Crow (D) also supports the move.
“There is a push from some of the Colorado representatives and others in the West to bring some of the D.C. offices west of the Mississippi so they are closer to where the policies are enacted, it is easier to get around and see the effects, and I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R).
Bernhardt has also said Interior might favor a state with bipartisan political representation for the relocation, according to an interview with the Albuquerque Journal last year.
‘Nothing more than a boondoggle’
But environmental advocates and former Interior officials say the move could actually hamstring the agencies, especially the BLM.
The BLM has regional offices across the United States, and most of its employees are in the West. Of the approximately 9,000 BLM employees, only about 650 of them are located in or aligned with the headquarters office in Washington, according to the Interior Department.
“We already have thousands of employees across the West, I am not sure how moving some more from Washington to a community in the West would help decisions be more local on the ground,” said Jayson O’Neill with Western Values Project, an advocacy group. “The reorganization has become nothing more than a boondoggle.”
Currently, BLM employees in Washington work on a host of issues, from executive leadership and human resources to budget issues and information technology, according to Interior.
Former Interior officials from the Obama and Clinton administrations say it’s important to keep employees close to where major decisions are made. Budgets are set in the nation’s capital, and agency officials there regularly meet with lawmakers, White House officials and stakeholders.
“I personally think that moving the leadership of BLM away from Washington will hurt BLM’s ability to procure the funding and decision-making that it needs to thrive in today’s federal government,” said David Hayes, who was the Interior Department’s deputy secretary during the Obama administration.
“It seems like a very political thought as opposed to a truly transformative or good government initiative,” said Hayes, now the executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University School of Law.
“It is putting politics over reality, but in a way that will hurt the organization, because those folks in Washington have a role to play, and that is to work the Washington angle for the benefit of public lands, and get the support, budget and stakeholder outreach that is uniquely in Washington, D.C.”
Leaders of the various agencies within Interior also converge in Washington to develop strategies and plans together. Jamie Rappaport Clark, who was director of another one of Interior’s agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service, from 1997 to 2001, said she was frequently called into meetings with officials from the Agriculture Department, the White House and Capitol Hill.
“If they are sending headquarters positions to the West, all of that rapid response and external coordination, particularly in being relevant and responsive to Congress and the White House, that just evaporates,” said Clark, now president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.
The Public Lands Foundation, an organization with members from current, former and retired BLM employees, also came out against the move. The group said the decentralized structure of the agency already allows it to be responsive to needs on the ground in the West.
“There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by moving the HQ functions of budget, policy and oversight to a location in the West,” the group wrote in a recent report on the proposal.
Zinke’s vision for a large-scale Interior reorganization plan has three main components: A shift in regional boundaries for land management agencies across the United States; relocation of more D.C. headquarters positions to the West; and new regional commanders that would mirror leadership structures in the military. Bernhardt, who was confirmed earlier this year, has said he supports all but the new regional commanders.
‘Solution in search of a problem?’
Congressional Democrats could stall the efforts entirely.
The administration does not need an act of Congress to shift its agency structure, but it does need at least implicit approval and funding.
House Democrats have indicated they may not grant it. Democrats on the House Natural Resources and Appropriations Committees have requested reports from the department to give more justification for the reorganization.
“Over 90% of Interior employees already work outside the D.C. region. Is this really a solution in search of a problem?” said Rep. T.J. Cox (D-Calif.)
The spending bill that the House Appropriations Subcommittee approved earlier this month does not allocate money for the reorganization.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, has said the spending panel needs to receive a “comprehensive plan” for the reorganization — detailed information that even Bernhardt admits has been lacking.
“I think I committed to you months ago that if this moved forward, you’d get a detailed plan. And I think you can say you don’t have a detailed plan,” Bernhardt told McCollum at a hearing with the spending committee. “I know full well we need to have a plan that will pass muster for you.”