WASHINGTON — The Interior Department will summon the far-flung headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management back to Washington from the mountains of western Colorado, reversing a move by the Trump administration that caused upheaval within the agency and led to nearly 90% of the former headquarters staff to retire, quit or leave for other jobs.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland broke the news to BLM staffers on a phone call Friday afternoon, before the announcement was made public in a statement shortly afterward. Haaland said the agency will create a new “Western headquarters” in Grand Junction, Colo.
During the staff call, Haaland said her “primary concern has always been for your well being and to restore the effectiveness of the BLM’s operations.”
“I know the past few years have been difficult for many of you. The relocation of the BLM headquarters scattered employees and programs across the West, driven others out of the agency, and put enormous stress on those who remained,” Haaland said, according to the call heard by The Washington Post.
Haaland and other BLM leaders have been surveying employees about the headquarters move to Grand Junction, which was completed last year at the end of the Trump administration. The move led to widespread stress and frustration among headquarters staff in Washington, who were given a deadline of last summer to move to rural Colorado or other Western cities, or lose their jobs, despite the pandemic.
Of the 328 positions that were slated to move out of Washington, 287 employees either retired or quit for other jobs, Haaland noted during a visit to Grand Junction in July. Just three people ultimately ended up relocating to Grand Junction, she told reporters at the time, and the headquarters ended up with more than 80 vacancies.
The Trump administration justified the move, saying most of the public lands managed by the BLM are in the Western United States and the move would put leadership closer to that land. But current and former employees have said they believe the intention was to weaken the agency that does environmental assessments and regulates fossil fuel and other energy interests.
However, Colorado politicians supported the headquarters staying in their state, despite the disruption to the agency.
“It’s a huge benefit to the American people if their government can be closer to them,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said during Haaland’s July visit to Colorado. “That’s what this really represents, the opportunity to get the agency out to the public lands that it manages with the help of all of us.”
Haaland said during her call on Friday the BLM’s presence in Grand Junction “will remain and grow” as the new Western headquarters and “important policy functions and senior personnel will continue to be located” there. But the agency’s director and “other key leadership positions” will return to Washington, “ensuring a presence in the nation’s capital, like all the other land management agencies in the federal family.”
Haaland added that apart from the core leadership team, employees who have already moved will not be required to relocate.
“I believe that this is an important step forward to rebuilding high-level functionality for the BLM and to ensure that leadership is centrally available for engagement with Indian tribes, with Congress, with other agency leadership and its many stakeholders,” she told the staff. “The BLM is central to meeting the challenges of our day, from tackling climate change to expanding access to the great outdoors for all Americans to build back better.”
Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., supported the department’s plan to have two headquarters.
“A Western BLM Headquarters in Colorado will help ensure we have a fully functioning agency that understands the West,” Hickenlooper said in a statement on Friday. “To succeed, the Western HQ must be a strong, permanent presence that engages the community and adds a Western perspective and value to the BLM’s mission.”
The BLM manages 245 million acres of public land in the Western states, balancing competing demands from miners and oil drillers, environmentalists, ranchers and hunters.
President Joe Biden nominated Tracy Stone-Manning, the former director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, to lead the bureau. But her nomination has faced intense scrutiny from Republicans, particularly an episode from her graduate school days involving the spiking of trees in Idaho.
She received no Republican support during a July vote by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The full Senate has yet to vote on her nomination.
On Friday, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the ranking Republican of the committee, criticized the Biden administration’s decision to move the BLM headquarters, saying “the single headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management belongs in the West.”
“The Biden administration’s answer for everything is to double the size of government,” Barrasso said. “The Bureau of Land Management doesn’t need two headquarters. What the bureau needs is an honest director who doesn’t bring shame to the agency.”
The agency has a key role in the Biden administration’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. Drilling and mining on federal lands and waters account for nearly a quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The administration paused all new oil and gas leases on public lands when Biden took office but after a court challenge has restarted the process for further lease sales in several states.