Observe the BLM’s displacement

Moving land-management HQ out of Washington illustrates the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’

 

In 2017, Steve Bannon, then chief strategist for the Trump administration, told a conservative gathering that the administration’s first-round Cabinet appointees were selected in order to carry out the “deconstruction of the administrative state” by repealing regulations and otherwise dismantling government agencies. Bannon was articulating what most observers already knew. After all, Trump’s appointees were, for the most part, either woefully unequipped for the job or openly hostile to the agencies they would lead.

Many of those first-round picks are now gone, but their successors have carried on the deconstruction agenda, some with even greater fervor. Perhaps nowhere have they had more success than within the Department of Interior, particularly the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees some 245 million acres of public land. Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first Interior secretary, and now his successor, David Bernhardt, have rescinded regulations, tossed out plans to save the imperiled sage grouse, streamlined oil and gas permitting, and made it easier for mining and drilling companies to avoid paying royalties on the public’s minerals. Now, in what may be the ultimate manifestation of the agency’s deconstruction, Bernhardt is moving the BLM’s national headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado.

This letter, from William Perry Pendley to BLM employees, provides a glimpse into the workings of the move and the context surrounding it.

Instead of officially appointing someone to lead the BLM, President Donald Trump has installed acting directors, who do not require Senate confirmation. William Perry Pendley has filled that role since July 2019 and just had his position extended to April. Prior to becoming a federal bureaucrat, Pendley — whose Twitter handle is @Sagebrush_Rebel — was the president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an organization that embodied Bannon’s goal of destroying the administrative state.

Ryan Zinke first proposed moving BLM headquarters West in 2017. When he was ousted in early 2019, the plan was picked up by his successor, David Bernhardt, a Coloradan, who has a vested interest in getting the so-called administrative state out of industry’s way. Bernhardt has served as a lobbyist for Halliburton, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the Westlands Water District and the Rosemont Mine. He was a solicitor in George W. Bush’s Interior Department when it was notoriously plagued by scandal for cozying to the industries it regulated.

$13.6 million: 
The amount the Department of Interior is asking from Congress to fund the relocation.

In November 2019, BLM employees were given just 30 days to decide whether to move West or lose their jobs. D.C. staffers who are transferred to Grand Junction, for example, will face significant upheaval. The city is about one-tenth the size of the nation’s capital, with a fraction of the amenities, employment opportunities for partners and educational options for children. They would be relocating from a racially and ethnically diverse city to an overwhelmingly white, politically conservative town that doesn’t offer direct flights to D.C. Because the cost of living is far lower in Grand Junction, relocated staffers will receive a substantial cut in their “locality pay.” They will also be taken out of the Washington, D.C., loop, diminishing their opportunities to move between federal agencies as they climb the government career ladder.

Bernhardt argues that moving BLM HQ West will bring the agency’s leaders closer to the land that they manage — the bulk of which is located in Western states — as well as giving the national office better oversight of the state and regional field offices. It would also presumably bring nearly 300 high-paying government jobs to a mid-sized Western city. This promise of economic development garnered support from the likes of Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat. Critics of the relocation, such as Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., however, argued that moving national headquarters out of Washington could violate U.S. code and that it gives industry greater access to BLM leaders while reducing congressional oversight of the agency.

In September 2019, the government signed a lease with Crossroads Venture LLC for 6,000 square feet of office space in a Grand Junction building, with an annual rent of $156,278. 
Fellow tenants of the building include Chevron, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Laramie Energy. 
Other oil and gas companies have offices nearby.

In July, the BLM officially announced the move to Grand Junction. Only about 30 employees would relocate to this western Colorado city of 63,000, however, with another 220 staffers dispersed around the West. Grand Junction’s initial hopes for a needed economic boost were dashed. At the same time, it became clear that the move was not only displacing the agency, but also dismantling it by scattering staffers across a huge geographic area.

Pendley, however, won’t have to make that choice — not really. Rather than relocating to Grand Junction, Pendley and BLM Deputy Director of Operations Michael Nedd will be rotating in and out of the new headquarters for two-week stints, spending the rest of their time in Washington, at least until the new headquarters is “operational.”

Former BLM officials have told Government Executive that they expect as few as 15% of staffers to choose to be transferred. In his letter, Pendley justifies this prediction when he indicates that as of early December, 30 employees had already been reassigned to other government jobs in Washington, while only two staffers were in their new positions in the West. In other words, the move appears to be serving yet another purpose for the Bannon deconstructionists: It has become a de facto housecleaning of senior staffers, particularly people of color. In a letter to Bernhardt, Grijalva pointed out that Black employees are far less likely than white staffers to choose to “uproot their lives and families and (move) to areas with a sparse Black/African-American population.” Whether new employees will be hired to fill those positions is not clear. As of Jan. 14, the agency was not advertising for any full-time positions in the Grand Junction office, and a BLM official told us that the agency does not yet have any numbers on how many people have accepted or declined the re-assignment.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visits Hoover Dam, Nevada.
U.S. Department of the Interior

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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