Critics are wary of Bureau of Land Management relocation efforts

As the agency eyes a move West, critics say the change would be detrimental to public land policy.

 

The Bureau of Land Management’s current headquarters is a bland grey building, marble columns bracketing the front and flags flying overhead, in a sea of federal buildings lining the streets of the country’s capital. On the fifth floor, the agency’s public servants dutifully complete the day-to-day policy work, responding to Congressional requests and coordinating with fellow federal agencies.

Recently, the Department of Interior asked Congress for $10.5 million in the next fiscal year to pursue relocation efforts and an additional $12.1 million to consolidate bureaus into 12 regions across the West.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in his written statement during the appropriations hearing that the DOI is “considering relative cost, accessibility and the specific functions where it makes sense to be closer to field assets.” The BLM declined to comment.

Critics of efforts to relocate the agency to the Western United States, however, say the current headquarters is everything that it ought to be: unremarkable, unassuming — and centrally located.

An aerial view of the District of Columbia, where the Bureau of Land Management is currently headquartered.

“It would be a colossal waste of resources and costly to taxpayers to move the headquarters out of D.C.,” said Phil Hanceford, conservation director for The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit land conservation organization.

The BLM is one of over 50 federal buildings in the capital according to the U.S. General Services Administration. Research by The Wilderness Society shows only three significant federal agencies are headquartered outside of D.C.: Social Security Administration in Baltimore; Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta; and Railroad Retirement Board in Chicago. 

Elana Daly, who is retired from the BLM, said its D.C. location is crucial to working alongside agencies in the Interior Department, who share the building. Now a member of the Public Lands Foundation, a network of current and former BLM employees, Daly said she would routinely walk throughout the building to talk to employees of the other Interior agencies and respond to requests from Congressional staffers. “We met informally pretty frequently,” she said.

“Any movement like that costs a lot of money, creates a lot of uncertainty and causes angst with employees,” said Elizabeth Klein, former associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department during the Obama Administration. “I have not seen anything that has been put out or any formal proposal that would justify that kind of time and expense.”

According to Klein, this is not the first time a relocation was introduced and talk of reorganization has been floated in previous administrations. Klein suspects the relocation may be politically motivated. “It doesn’t appear to me to be a very well-thought-out, rational and cost-effective proposal,” she said.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., has been a strong advocate for the BLM relocation, even questioning previous Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on it during his confirmation hearing in 2017. The senator, who is up for reelection in 2020, has said he would like to see the headquarters move to Grand Junction, Colorado. 

“Making this agency more accountable to the people who have to deal with its management decisions by putting its headquarters among the land it manages would be a great start to modernizing for the next 100 years,” Gardner said in a statement.

He introduced the Bureau of Land Management Headquarters Relocation Act in May, saying, “Ninety-nine percent of the 250 million acres of land managed by BLM is West of the Mississippi River, and having the decision-makers present in the communities they impact will lead to better policy.”

But critics of the move argue that is not the case. Daly said she understands the desire to get policymakers closer to the ground but moving the headquarters to the West would not necessarily accomplish that. Instead, the BLM should rely on the in-state managers who already work on a local level, Daly said. “The policymakers won’t meet with the local ranchers because they don’t have the time,” she added.

Additionally Hanceford argues, the current administration and BLM has a track-record of overriding decisions made at the regional level, citing their reduction in public lands and actions to shorten public comment periods. “They’re not giving a lot of deference to the field even though they’re saying they care about regional, state and local input,” he said.

Critics of the move also argue the BLM is already highly decentralized for a federal agency and is heavily based in the states. “Ninety-seven percent of BLM employees already work in the areas they serve,” said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director at Western Values Project, a western lands advocacy organization.

“They’ve completely failed to make the case to Westerners on why this would increase participation,” O’Neill said. “The reality is much different.”

Liz Weber is an editorial intern working in Washington, D.C., for High Country News and a student at American University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.