WASHINGTON — Congress and the Trump administration butted heads Tuesday over the plan to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Colorado.
The U.S. Senate Appropriations panel with jurisdiction over the Interior Department approved a fiscal 2020 spending measure that does not include funding for the agency’s reorganization plan, including the BLM move.
But the Trump administration indicated it would not back down from the planned move, instead putting employee benefits on the line in the dispute.
The Trump administration is pushing to close the BLM’s Washington office, relocate staff across the West and create a new headquarters office in Grand Junction, Colo. The administration has argued that the BLM move puts staff closer to the land it manages in the West.
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.
In its fiscal 2020 spending proposal, released this week, the Senate Interior and Environment Subcommittee zeroed out funding for the reorganization. The full Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to vote on the bill later this week.
“This bill contains no additional resources to implement the ill-advised relocation of the Bureau of Land Management,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the top Democrat on the committee, said at the panel’s vote on the spending measure.
“Between this bill and the strong statement made by the House to oppose the reorganization, the administration would be well-advised to stop trying to ram these changes through and actually work with Congress on a good-faith basis.”
But the Interior Department released a statement that indicated they would not back down. The agency last Friday signed a lease agreement on office space in Grand Junction it will share with West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association and the corporate offices of Chevron and Denver-based Laramie Energy. Agency officials said that they would press on “full steam ahead” and put compensation for BLM employees on the line instead.
The BLM currently leases private office space in Washington for its headquarters. That lease expires at the end of 2020, and Interior officials said they have the means to move the agency at that time, regardless of the spending levels for the reorganization. Instead, the agency threatened to cut payments for employees to assist with the move or severance payments for those who choose not to relocate.
“The Department intends to give BLM employees their legally authorized compensation and incentives, but ultimately it is up to Congress to decide if they want to deny these benefits to our employees,” an Interior spokesperson said in a statement from the agency.
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.
Bureau of Land Management staff have also questioned the move, which could alter their jobs and uproot their families. Staff for Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) did not immediately return requests for comment on the spending dispute.