BLM’s Proposed Reorganization Stirs Controversy

Grand Junction, Colorado (photo: by Eleaf, CreativeCommons.org)

In January 2018, then–Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced a sweeping program to reorganize the department, the largest such reorganization since its founding in 1849. Zinke’s plan involved dividing the United States into thirteen regions, each of which would host the principal offices of agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. The plan would seed the countryside with federal employees—and gut the number of DOI employees stationed in Washington, DC, while trimming the DOI workforce by about 6 percent.

Secretary Zinke is gone, but his reorganization plan remains alive. One agency within DOI, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is particularly in the spotlight. With about 10,000 employees, it is one of the very few federal agencies that generates revenue far in excess of its expenditures, mostly because of its ability to lease oil and gas exploration and drilling rights on public lands, as well as its oversight of mineral rights on more than 700 million acres. Still, BLM often generates controversy, in part because its mandate is to protect as well as manage public lands, which often requires fending off proposals such as mining for uranium on lands adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park.

In September of this year, William Perry Pendley, deputy director of policy and programs for the BLM, spoke before a Congressional hearing on one aspect of the agency’s reorganization: namely, moving its headquarters from Washington, DC, to Grand Junction, a city of about 150,000 people on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, not far from the Utah border. It is perhaps coincidental that the area has been reliably Republican over the last half-century’s presidential elections, but what is certain is that Grand Junction is considerably less expensive than Washington in terms of both home prices and office leases. Finding suitable office space, though, may prove a challenge—at the moment, the largest single available space in the city is an abandoned grocery store. Office space is similarly hard to come by in many other western cities, though the rates are attractive: The average rental in Washington is $59.48, full service, per square foot, according to recent Colliers data, while it goes for $36.24 in Denver. A projected space in Grand Junction, Director Pendley maintains, will run a little less than that, $32.35 a square foot, which represents an inarguable savings over the current main DOI building in Washington, at $50 a square foot.

Director Pendley points out that the number of BLM employees in Washington is small—a little under 400. Still, almost all of the agency’s senior decision makers are based there. His proposal, lightly revised over the last year, would leave some BLM offices—including his own—in Washington, while 74 senior positions and approximately 220 others would be reallocated to field offices and the proposed Grand Junction headquarters.

There are rough spots left to iron out. Zinke’s original proposal consolidated Arizona and New Mexico into one unit, for example, on the ground that the states constituted a kind of cultural whole. This did not please politicians from either state, who worried that their districts would lose employees; at the same time, observers noted that the proposal would have eliminated a regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Navajo Nation, which spans both states. Director Pendley’s revised proposal places 34 employees in Phoenix and 39 in Santa Fe.

The BLM proposal, which acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney lauds as “a wonderful way to sort of streamline government,” has met with sharply divided responses in Congress and among the political class. That streamlining, critics charge, may come at the expense of experienced senior staff who, for one reason or another, do not want to leave the national capital. Critics also worry that decentralizing BLM would leave the agency too open to the influence of state governmental agencies, which have tended, in the West, to be freer in granting exploitation rights to individuals and corporations than has the federal government. It is likely for that reason that groups such as the Western Energy Alliance have voiced enthusiastic support for relocation.

Given that the great majority of BLM employees already work in the field, and especially in the West, where most public lands lie, that concern may not be entirely well grounded. Still, scattering the BLM across the landscape may not realize the efficiencies that Director Pendley’s proposal promises, especially because the key decisions will continue to be made in an office in Washington, albeit with fewer people on hand. As one critic told the Denver-based online newspaper The Colorado Sun, “If you have your oil and gas expert in Santa Fe, your cultural resource person in Montana, your conservation expert someplace else and decision makers in Washington, how does that work?”

That remains to be seen, and we’ll be keeping an eye out as the BLM plan unfolds. Meanwhile, an even broader piece of proposed legislation, the Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy (HIRE) Act, would move 90 percent of the federal jobs in ten departments, including Agriculture and Education, to the states—with Transportation going to Michigan to be near its automobile plants, never mind that plenty of cars are manufactured in other states and that automobiles do not constitute the sole portfolio of the department. Conservative policy analyst Clyde Wayne Crews Jr., writing in the Wall Street Journal, comments, “The HIRE Act would tie Middle America inextricably to big progressive government, remaking America in Washington’s image. The bill’s supposed decentralization would be anything but.” Still, the sentiment to relocate, redistribute, and remake is strong. Stay tuned.

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