Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees based in Washington, D.C., may soon be packing their bags for a permanent move to the wild West.

A July 16 letter from Joseph R. Balash, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Interior Department’s Land and Minerals Management Division, laid out an implementation plan for a “realignment” of job positions within the BLM. The letter was sent to members of the Committee of Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment.

Balash explained in the letter that the DOI had analyzed 550 BLM positions currently based in Washington, D.C., and devised a plan to move 296 of those positions out of the main D.C. office. Seventy-two positions will be allocated to state BLM offices throughout the Western states, two will be moved to the Eastern state offices, and 222 will be distributed throughout Western states, based on the DOI’s analysis and feedback from state directors regarding their staffing needs. Another 166 of the 550 analyzed positions that are technically based in Washington, D.C., are already assigned to field locations.

Colorado policy-makers are pleased with the proposal’s plan to open a headquarters location in Grand Junction, Colorado, just over 100 miles from Moab. Twenty-seven full-time leadership positions will be moved from the nation’s capital to the western Colorado city.

Sen Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, celebrated the plan in a July 15 press release. 

“The problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve,” Gardner said. “Ninety-nine percent of the land the BLM manages is west of the Mississippi River, and so should be the BLM headquarters. This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands, and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government.” 

Gardner has advocated a western BLM headquarters for several years — in 2017, he introduced a bill to Congress to relocate the agency’s main office. Former GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who has since retired, co-sponsored the bill.

The letter notes that representatives from state and local governments, as well as citizens of Western states, offered feedback saying that “their BLM state, district, or field office is understaffed or lacks resources to support the needs of their constituents.”

Consultation with state directors informed the redistribution of the Washington, D.C., positions. Colorado’s BLM state office will be allocated four new positions, and another 54 jobs will be distributed throughout the state. In Utah, seven positions will be allocated to the state office, with another thirty-seven positions being distributed throughout the beehive state. For all currently filled positions, existing staff will be offered a voluntary transfer option. Vacant positions will be advertised in their new location.

Sixty-one employees will remain in the D.C. office, attending to duties including budgetary, legislative, regulatory, public affairs, and Freedom of Information Act responsibilities.

In the letter to the Appropriations Committee, Balash said the reorganization would cut costs and improve services, efficiency, and communication within the organization and with external partners and stake-holders. In a list of benefits of the move, he wrote, “Executive personnel [will be] physically closer to the geography they manage, enabling closer oversight and accountability for the BLM’s activities and decisions, including field site or site visits for high priority and/or controversial projects so managers can gain a more fulsome understanding of what is being proposed on the ground.”

Acting Secretary of the Department of the Interior David Bernhardt echoed this reasoning in a July 16 statement about the realignment:

“A meaningful realignment of our operations is not simply about where functions are performed; rather, it is rooted in how changes will better respond to the needs of the American people … Shifting critical leadership positions and supporting staff to western states — where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located — is not only a better management system, it is beneficial to the interest of the American public in these communities, cities, counties, and states.”

The agency hopes to have completed the move by the end of 2020, which coincides with the expiration of the government’s lease on its office space on M Street in Washington, D.C. A renewal of that lease would result in a much higher cost of rent, while office space in western states is considerably less expensive than in the nation’s capital. This is the source of some of the projected $50 million in cost savings claimed in the letter outlining the plan. Other savings are anticipated in lower locality adjustments paid to employees who will, in the future, operate in regions with a lower cost of living, as well as lower travel costs.

While cost savings is a priority for the federal agency, Grand Junction officials and business owners are hoping the new headquarters will translate into an economic boost for their city.

Diane Schwenke is president of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce. She described the plan as “a ‘win’ for diversifying the economy, which will have a lasting impact on the strength of our local economy,” and foresaw opportunities for Grand Junction businesses “from restaurants to car dealers.”

If indeed the new office brings a new vitality to the Grand Junction economy, that effect could potentially reach Moab as well.

Zacharia Levine is the Grand County Director of Community and Economic Development.

“I do think there is some potential for a BLM move to further spur agglomeration and clustering in our region,” Levine said, explaining that “agglomeration refers to similar businesses within a narrow set of sectors locating in a region,” while clustering “refers to a multitude of linked businesses and institutions locating in a region that enables one or more sectors to expand rapidly.”

“In both cases, the regional economies benefit from the innovation, workforce, and supply chain linkages of more connected economies,” Levine said, citing potential growth in areas such as local degree programs that relate to land management, a developing outdoor products industry in Grand Junction, and renewable energy or mining/drilling developments that are often supported by public lands. 

“To the degree that moving BLM headquarters to Grand Junction enhances the attractiveness of our region and the linkages between businesses and institutions that use BLM lands, it could be viewed as an economic stimulus,” Levine said. “Regardless, I see a lot of potential for more linkages between Moab’s economy and Grand Junction’s economy.”

Not everyone is excited about the realignment plan. Some members of congress have doubts about whether it will really result in the savings and increased efficiency promised.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, is on the Committee of Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment. In a July 16 statement, he questioned the motives and wisdom of the proposal:

“Congress needs much more information from the Interior Department about this proposal to evaluate whether it is legal or advisable, as well as how much taxpayer money it would cost,” Udall said. “I support putting more land management staff and resources on the ground in Western states, which is why I have fought to reject the administration’s disastrous budget proposals over the last three years and to increase BLM’s funding. But BLM leadership must be accessible and accountable to all affected states and to Congress, which sits in Washington. A sudden relocation would also likely mean BLM would shed essential staff, crippling the agency’s ability to carry out its responsibilities to protect and manage our precious public lands. Based on what I know so far, I have serious reservations about this plan.” 

Environmental nonprofits and government watchdog groups have also expressed disapproval of the move.

Athan Manuel, director of public lands protection for the environmental non-profit Sierra Club, said in a July 15 statement, “This move is a solution in search of a problem. Spending millions to relocate when there are existing regional offices, billions in park maintenance backlog on the books, and costs still rolling in from Trump’s Independence Day extravagance is just foolhardy. This is theatrics, not good governance.” 

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance called the plan a “move to decentralize and effectively neuter the BLM.”

Balash said implementation of the plan will begin using the $5.6 million allocated in the 2019 budget. For the 27 positions moving to Grand Junction, employees have until Aug. 15 of this year to decide whether they will transfer to Grand Junction or move to another department.

Interior Department plans to open agency’s new headquarters in the Colorado city