WASHINGTON — The head of the Bureau of Land Management today defended the Trump administration’s plans to close the agency’s Washington, D.C., office and relocate positions to Grand Junction, Colo.
Colorado lawmakers are largely in favor of the sweeping reorganization plan for the land management agency. But other Democrats and public lands advocates question whether the proposal would lead to a mass exodus of skilled federal employees and create a leadership vacuum for BLM in Washington.
Wiliam Perry Pendley, the acting BLM director, told members of the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that the agency has not done any research or formal surveys on how the move would affect employees or how many would be interested in relocating.
The agency made a “rough estimate,” based on historical data, that 25% of affected employees might retire or separate from the agency.
Pendley said he hopes employees will either accept relocation assignments or move to other open positions within the Interior Department.
“I do not want to lose a single one of them,” Pendley said of BLM career staff. “I’m not trying to drain the swamp, I’m trying to make it more possible for them to do their job.”
Pendley — a free-market activist who has previously called for dismantling federal agencies and selling public lands — took a measured tone in his first appearance before Congress as a Trump administration official. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt tapped Pendley last month as interim director for BLM. Pendley has not been confirmed by the Senate for an Interior job under this administration.
Pendley said he plans to give employees relocation assignments next week. The agency has had a hiring freeze since announcing the reorganization last month to try to account for the coming changes.
Some lawmakers think the departures could be much higher if the sweeping BLM reorganization plan goes forward. When the Agriculture Department announced plans to move two of its research agencies to Kansas City this summer, about two-thirds of agency employees said they would not move.
Democrats at the hearing questioned whether the plan would lead to a mass exodus of skilled federal employees. They are concerned it will create a leadership vacuum for BLM in Washington, where agency employees work closely with Congress, budget-writers and other federal bureaus.
“What is being called a reorganization of the BLM appears to be nothing more than a poorly-veiled attempt to dismantle a federal agency,” House Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said at the hearing today on the proposal.
Grijalva characterized the move as part of the Trump administration’s “campaign to undermine American public lands.”
The reorganization plan would shutter BLM’s Washington office and disperse agency employees. The administration would open a new, smaller headquarters office in Grand Junction with 27 positions, mostly top managers at BLM. Most of the rest of the 350 BLM employees who currently work in Washington, would go to various state offices across the West. Another 61 BLM positions would remain in Washington.
The administration wants to complete the BLM move by the end of 2020.
Republicans who support the move say it would be a benefit to put BLM employees closer to the land they manage. The agency oversees more than 245 million acres of federal land and 800 million acres of mineral estate — primarily in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. All of those states would get a bump in staff after the reorganization.
“Moving BLM closer to the lands they manage will undoubtedly improve agency efficiency, accountability and engagement,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), whose district includes Grand Junction, has been advocating for the move for the past year.
“The real concern is — are we getting the real response out of Washington, D.C., with the people who are making the decisions that impact the lands in the West?” said Tipton. “It is useful to have decision-makers on the ground.”
But many who have worked in the agency say it will hamstring the BLM to have headquarters staff spread across the country.
“BLM is a multiple-use agency, it is imperative the disciplines work together on a day-to-day basis to coordinate the policy and activities,” said Edward Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a group whose 600 members are largely retired BLM employees. “Separating and isolating staff to separate locations will severely limit their ability to do so. We feel this plan is so radical.”
BLM is already a diffuse organization, with regional offices across the United States. Most of its employees already work outside Washington. Only about 6% of BLM’s approximately 9,000 employees are currently located in or aligned with the headquarters office in Washington, according to the Interior Department.
“Why are we here when virtually the entire agency is already in the field, which is where it should be?” Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, the non-voting representative for the District of Columbia, said at the hearing. “Somebody has to have the wisdom to look across the entire agency. This is an extreme proposal to essentially have almost no headquarters staff, and I cannot believe the House and Senate will look kindly on this matter.”
The administration does not need an act of Congress to shift its agency structure, but Democrats could try to block funding for the move. The spending bill that the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee approved earlier this summer does not allocate money for the reorganization. The Senate has not completed its spending measure.
Several Democrats at the hearing said they want to see independent analysis of the cost and benefits of the move and how it would affect the workforce
“The lingering doubts, questions and objections to this move come from a lack of prior information to the committee and Congress in terms of any analysis or justifications or rationale,” said Grijalva. “I think that suspicions about motivation in terms of why this move is going on abound and they should be, given the fact that there has been no transparency on it to this date, a full justification rationale has not been produced.”
Grijalva said the administration can expect to see more pushback: “Questions continue to linger and we are going to continue to press the point.”
Pendley said the move would save taxpayers $90 million over 20 years, according to an estimate from the Office of Management and Budget. Those savings will come from lower rent and reduced take-home pay for BLM employees, to account for a lower cost of living in their new offices.
‘Any day in Colorado is better’
Colorado Democrats at the hearing welcomed the potential move but said they want more information from the administration.
Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) said the people of Colorado would “do a wonderful job at BLM” but said the administration needs to “work with appropriations and authorizing committees” to answer questions on the proposal.
“Any day in Colorado is a better day than when we have to be here,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said. But DeGette said she wants to see more information on how BLM is going to fill existing vacancies and potential new openings.
“Do you think simply moving the office will solve the staffing problems? What is your longer-term plan?” DeGette asked.
The proposal would shift 74 positions that currently focus on national issues to state functions, which DeGette said is still not enough to deal with current vacancies.
Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, said the agency would benefit from being surrounded by public lands and its users. Mesa County is 72 percent public land, most of it under BLM management.
As for those who may not want to move West, Brown indicated they might be better placed elsewhere.
“If you have a BLM employees that does not want to live near BLM land, you probably should reorganize,” Brown said.