Biden Administration Explores Dragging Land Agency Away From U.S. Land, Back To The Swamp

Biden Administration Explores Dragging Land Agency Away From U.S. Land, Back To The Swamp

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland gave the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) headquarters in Grand Junction a visit last week as she contemplates returning it to Washington DC.
Tristan Justice
By

DENVER, Col. — President Joe Biden’s Interior Secretary Deb Haaland gave the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado a visit last week as she contemplates the agency’s return to Washington, DC.

“My first priority is to avoid doing any more harm to the BLM’s dedicated employees,” Haaland said, and indicated a decision is likely to come soon. The only harm that could come would be from a costly move back to the beltway after a brief two-year stint on the western slope.

The land agency that oversees about 12 percent of U.S. lands, 99 percent of which reside across 11 western states and Alaska, decentralized its D.C. headquarters and moved to Grand Junction in 2019. Casey Hammond, who announced the move as the agency’s acting director at the time, told The Federalist the decision came as the bureau faced crises on several fronts.

The BLM’s lease on high-end D.C. office space near Nationals Park, which had been locked in at a low rate, was coming to an end and renewal was unaffordable. Also, by the end of the year, 130 headquarters employees would be eligible for retirement, with new hires for beltway positions “extraordinarily difficult” to find.

“If you want experienced land managers, they don’t come from Washington D.C., and they don’t want to move to Washington D.C.,” Hammond said. “If you have a good life in Montana or in Colorado, there’s a good chance you don’t want to move to Washington D.C.”

The impending crises also presented an opportunity to relocate the BLM headquarters closer to the lands it manages and the people it serves, and Grand Junction was a natural choice. New office space would be cheaper, the cost of living would be lower, homes for employees would be bigger and less expensive, opportunities for outdoor recreation would be wider, and commutes would be shorter. In contrast, a one-way one- to two-hour commute was common among D.C. staff.

Once the headquarters was moved, the BLM was flooded with resumes for positions re-listed in Grand Junction and across much of the west.

“People were willing to live and take these jobs in the west, they just weren’t willing to pick up and move east to do it,” Hammond said.

William Perry Pendley, who led the BLM under the Trump administration and coordinated the transition, emphasized many positions also went to western locations outside Grand Junction relevant to their area of oversight.

“[We] moved all the experts into the places where their expertise is needed,” Pendley told The Federalist. Those who worked in renewable energy went to California. Those who worked in recreation went to Utah. Those who worked in oil and gas went to New Mexico. Those who worked with wild horses went to Nevada. “We thought, ‘It makes sense for these people to be there.'”

The most senior positions within the BLM were sent to Grand Junction. Yet Democrats who wanted to the agency to be closer to national politicians as opposed to the people they serve trashed the move at the time as Republicans seeking to “dismantle” the bureau. Haaland, who will now play a primary role in the bureau’s fate, was a first-term congresswoman from New Mexico on the state’s Natural Resources Committee when the proposal was introduced.

The then-freshman representative now leading the nation’s premier department overseeing public lands cloaked her opposition to the headquarters move as one of concern for agency employees as she prepares for a possible reversal.

“It is just a way to destroy the agency and make it easier for this administration to sell off our public lands to the highest bidder,” Haaland said at a 2019 news conference.

Opponents to BLM’s D.C. exit pointed to the fact only 41 staffers opted to move across the country out of the 300 positions taken out from the nation’s capital. Hammond explained that number is inflated, however, as it includes vacant positions that were proving near impossible to fill.

While 41 employees did move, Hammond said, and their transition was supported with government resources and ample time, only 179 instead of 300 employees were affected, many of whom were quickly approaching retirement or already eligible to retire. Meanwhile, Hammond added, a “vast majority” of the move was on paper, with many positions officially reassigned already in the west but on paper stationed in D.C.

Pendley noted that employees who declined retirement and opted to stay put were given help to find new jobs in Washington at another agency where their skills and expertise could still be put to good use, such as in the National Parks Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Every employee in Grand Junction either wanted to move there or bid on a job there,” Pendley said.

In March, Republican Freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, introduced legislation that would keep the BLM headquartered in Grand Junction, which resides in her western Colorado district. In a statement to The Federalist, Boebert criticized the potential move back to Washington as an effort to “centralize power with a handful of unelected, career bureaucrats who have no connection with public lands.”

The conservative firebrand has carved the effort to keep the BLM headquarters in her district as a signature issue in what’s become a bipartisan crusade. Colorado’s two Democrat senators and the state’s Democrat governor have encouraged Haaland to allow the headquarters remain close to the lands it oversees.

Speaking at an event with Haaland alongside Democrat Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, plus several members of Colorado’s House delegation including Boebert, Democrat Gov. Jared Polis said potential employees would be “thrilled” to continue to build Grand Junction’s BLM headquarters. According to the Grand Junction Sentinel in February, the agency’s move has brought $11 million to the region.

The next potential chief of the bureau, however, Tracy Stone-Manning, whose nomination passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last week by a partisan vote, also opposed the headquarters’ move to the western U.S. The committee moved forward the nomination despite Republican objections over her role in a 1989 tree spiking case, wherein leftist environmental activists illegally jammed 8-to-10-inch metal rods into trees. The spikes then explode when processed in a sawmill, sending deadly shrapnel through the air that can maim or kill lumberjacks and firefighters.

Boebert also joined Colorado Republican Reps. Doug Lamborn and Ken Buck Tuesday to challenge the state’s senators to secure a pledge from the Biden administration to keep the BLM headquartered in Grand Junction in exchange for their support for Stone-Manning, who is unlikely to recieve a single Republican vote in the 50-50 Senate.

“Senators Hickenlooper and Bennet have the power to stand up for Colorado and leverage the Biden administration into keeping the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters and existing personnel spots in Grand Junction,” Boebert wrote in a statement. “I’ve appreciated their efforts and working with them on this bicameral and bipartisan effort. But based on comments from Secretary Haaland last week, the fate of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Colorado now rests on the shoulders of John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet.”

If the headquarters are moved back to Washington, it would mark a major setback for efforts to decentralize federal agencies and re-locate bureaucratic offices among the constituents they serve. In 2019, GOP Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee introduced legislation to do just that titled the “Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy (HIRE) Act.”

“Every year Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars fund federal agencies that are mainly located in the D.C. bubble,” Hawley said in a statement at the time. “That’s a big part of the problem with Washington: they’re too removed from the rest of America.”

The bill, however, never drew another co-sponsor, and it’s unclear whether the legislation will be re-introduced. The BLM’s relocation, however, started the process.

Tristan Justice is the western correspondent for The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter at @JusticeTristan or contact him at [email protected]

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