When it comes to the relocation of the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters, acting Director William Perry Pendley, a self-proclaimed “sagebrush rebel,” is just following orders.
At least, that’s what he told a crowd of agency staff in Washington, D.C., at an early September meeting to discuss the planned move to Grand Junction, Colorado. Though he’s long been associated with the effort to transfer public lands away from federal control, Pendley denied that the impending agency move was an underhanded attempt to weaken federal authority.
“President Trump is unalterably opposed to the wholesale disposal or sale of federal land,” Pendley said. “(Interior Department) Secretary (David) Bernhardt is unalterably opposed to the disposal or sale of federal lands, and that’s my position, too. I’m a Marine. … I follow orders, and our plan is to hold on to the land we have.”
Later in the meeting, Deputy Director of Operations Mike Nedd, another ex-military man, struck a similar note in discussing the move and the impetus behind it. “I’m a soldier,” he said. “I report to someone.”
The audience was not convinced. Throughout the 80-minute session, the details of which were first reported by E&E News, agency staff condemned the move’s impact on their lives and families and, in particular, the lack of transparency surrounding the decision. The Washington BLM staff, who packed the room, questioned the wisdom of the move, as well as its underlying motivation.
Audio of the meeting obtained by High Country News offers an intimate glimpse of the confrontation between BLM leadership and agency staff — highlighting Pendley’s inability to justify the move to the people most affected by it.
“How did we get here?” one man asked. “Was something so terribly broken? — and this is a Marine talking to a Marine.” Here, Pendley interjected with a playful “Semper Fi,” which brought a laugh from the audience.
“Y’all didn’t take anybody in this room into consideration.”
“Did anybody take the time,” the questioner went on, “to talk to each and every one of these individuals in this room to see how the move would impact them and their family? … Y’all didn’t take anybody in this room into consideration.” He added that he has no plans to move West, questioned whether anyone in leadership had the “moral courage” to stand up to Bernhardt, and called the move a “political thing.”
The room, which had gone serious and silent after the exchange with Pendley, erupted in loud applause.
THE MOOD IN THE ROOM seemed bewildered and occasionally combative, as the audience delved into the uncomfortable subject of logistics, wondering what, of any, BLM functions might be eliminated and how the employees’ lives would be affected.
“I will say that the morale of the folks I know in this room is as low as I’ve ever seen it,” said one man, who added that he’s seeking a new job.
The exchanges grew more personal. These workers have decades of experience and settled lives in the nation’s capital – children in school, mortgages. Nedd, a career staffer himself with nearly 30 years at the agency, stressed that he understood their frustration. Indeed, as holding one of the positions slated to move, he seems to share many of their complaints. Nedd, one of the highest-ranking BLM staffers, implied that he personally does not support the relocation.
“I’ve been at this bureau for 28 years. I had the opportunity to sit in some of those meetings. If I had to make a decision, I probably would have made a different decision,” Nedd said. “But I follow orders. That’s what we do. We all follow orders to some degree. And anytime I don’t want to follow orders, I have some choices, like go find another job or work for someone else.”
This was not the agency’s first attempt to sell the move internally. In mid-July, some staffers were briefed on it, though the earlier session apparently failed to bring everyone up to speed or quell employee fears. But the basic facts of the move, which was announced shortly after the July staff meeting, are fairly clear: The agency’s headquarters is slated to move to Grand Junction in western Colorado by Oct. 1. Twenty-seven top positions will relocate as well, and supporters say this will put those decision-makers in the middle of the 245 million acres the BLM oversees, which are overwhelmingly in the West. About 97 percent of BLM staff are already based in the region, and those stationed in Washington typically work with other federal agencies or Congress. In addition, 222 additional jobs will be dispersed throughout the region over the next several years. Currently, only about 60 positions are expected to remain in the capital.
At the September meeting, staff members repeatedly took the mic to say that they felt left in the dark on all but the most basic publicly available information.
“I deeply regret that we have not been able to be more factually forthcoming with you prior to today,” Pendley said. It was due to an abundance of caution, he said, in making sure that every step of the headquarters relocation had legal support.
Even so, there was a noticeable lack of concrete answers regarding employees’ specific concerns, including the ongoing workload during the relocation process, financial planning and a timeline specifying when staff would have to leave. Pendley’s opaque answers, whether caused by an inability or unwillingness to be clear, brought rumbles of dissatisfaction from the audience. He said that people would be informed about their job’s status by Sept. 17 – a deadline he promptly missed, E&E News reported.
BY THE MEETING’S END, audience opinion seemed to have solidified against Pendley. People were not getting the answers they sought, and some even doubted that the move would take place. The move, Pendley declared, is a done deal; the agency is about to sign a lease in Grand Junction, he said.
“Obviously, there are people who disagree,” Pendley said.“But it’s the secretary’s conclusion that he’s dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s with the required consultation with Congress.”
Congress has provided $5.6 million for relocation, Pendley noted, adding that this will be “sufficient.” He said that he expects more funding going forward. However, that relocation money was allocated when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. Now, Democrats, who are opposed to the Grand Junction move, are in charge of the Interior Department spending bill for 2020, and there is currently no money set aside for it. The agency staff is aware of this. One woman confronted her boss over the yawning uncertainties regarding the move. Congress holds the “power of the purse,” she reminded Pendley. People are making “life choices,” based on Secretary Bernhardt stating that he is “confident.”
“If the interest was to really do this in a way that offered clarity to folks,” she said, “then it would have been appropriate in my opinion to actually get authorization from Congress for the entirety of the move.”
To deny that Congress may withhold more money for the move is “disingenuous,” she added.
“That’s not taking care of the people,” she said. “And it’s not taking care of the bureau’s operations because the damage is done. … I’d like a response to that,” she finished.
“We are basing life decisions on speculation.”
After the clapping that followed her statement, Pendley began his response by saying, “The secretary remains confident …” only to be immediately drowned out by groans and derisive laughter, shouts of “Come on!” and general uproar. “We can speculate all afternoon,” Pendley pushed on, “about what could happen. … I’m not going to go down that road, I’m sorry.”
“We are basing life decisions on speculation,” the woman replied.
A FEW DAYS LATER, Pendley publicly defended the relocation before the House Natural Resources Committee. The move, he repeated, would help the agency better fulfill its mission. Led by Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the committee’s Democrats tore into Pendley for past statements in which he condemned federal management of public land and advocated for its transfer to the states. After the hearing, Grijalva said that he might use the committee’s legal authority to subpoena the BLM for documents about the move’s true motivation and cost — information the agency has refused to provide, according to Politico.
But Pendley toed the administration’s line in justifying the move to BLM employees. “It was a decision made before I got there,” Pendley said, “but it’s a decision I fully embrace and that I intend to complete.”
The Trump administration has rolled back dozens of Western public-land regulations and yielded to the demands of land-transfer advocates by shrinking in national monuments and promoting people like Pendley — a legendary figure in the Sagebrush Rebellion.
Given this context, it’s reasonable to doubt goodwill in the proposed move and reorganization. Democrats and Western watchdogs suspect that the relocation is an attempt to dilute the agency’s oversight capacity by moving it away from the power centers of federal decision-making and reducing the staff size. Pendley maintains that no “functions” will be lost in the move, but, as one staffer noted, it’s been estimated that a substantial majority of staffers will not relocate, making it hard to imagine that some important work won’t slip through the cracks. With a change like this, long-term, experienced staffers with significant expertise will inevitably be lost.
In what was the final public question of the employees’ meeting, a woman asked Pendley about a recent agency letter to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M, which stated that BLM jobs slated for New Mexico could be rescinded in retaliation for Udall’s opposition to the relocation. Her question was simple: “Who’s in charge of selecting where the positions are going?” she asked.
“(We’re) currently working with the state offices on those final decisions,” Pendley replied.
“These are the type of decision that should have been made prior to announcing a move,” she shot back, “if this is for the best for the BLM. How is that not determined already?
“Can’t explain,” Pendley replied.
This story was originally published on Sept. 20, 2019 by Nick Bowlin on High Country News. High Country News contributor Tay Wiles assisted in the reporting of this story.