BLM Relocation Still a Mess, Government Report Finds

BLM Relocation Still a Mess, Government Report Finds
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The decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to relocate the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters to Colorado is again coming under scrutiny — and now some of the criticism is coming from within the federal government itself.

In a report released March 6, analysts at the Government Accountability Office faulted the process behind the BLM's "reorganization," a sweeping plan to shift hundreds of agency staffers to field offices across the West, including 27 employees to a new headquarters in Grand Junction.

"In developing its plan, BLM has not substantially followed key practices for effective agency reforms relevant to relocating employees," reads the GAO report, which reviewed internal communications and other documents provided by the agency to evaluate how the reorganization was planned. "BLM established broad goals for the reorganization but did not establish outcome-oriented performance measures," and the agency "has not completed a strategic workforce plan that demonstrates how it will recruit for and fill vacant positions resulting from the relocation," the report's authors added.

The GAO analysis was requested by Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and chair of the House Natural Resources Committee who has been harshly critical of the BLM's reorganization plans, which were first announced last July by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native and former oil lobbyist. Environmental groups worry that the Trump administration's overhaul of the BLM, which manages nearly 250 million acres of public land across the West, threatens key environmental protections and review processes overseen by the agency's Washington, D.C.-based staff.

"The GAO confirmed what we’ve known all along — Secretary Bernhardt’s plan to eviscerate the Bureau of Land Management is shoddy at best and dangerously incompetent at worst," Jennifer Rokala, director of the Center for Western Priorities, says in a statement about the report.

The GAO report is particularly critical of the agency's lack of engagement with employees and other "stakeholders" in its planning process. There's no evidence that BLM leadership incorporated feedback from senior staffers about the reorganization proposal, and most employees don't appear to have been consulted at all.

"Documents we reviewed did not indicate what input the executive leadership team provided, whether BLM considered it, or how BLM used it in formulating reorganization plans," the report says. "These documents also do not indicate that staff other than the executive leadership team were consulted or engaged with during this formulation process."

About ten employees began work at the agency's new Grand Junction headquarters in January, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. But many of the agency's top staffers are expected to quit rather than make the move west — and many conservation advocates say that was the goal all along.

"The GAO report is more proof that Secretary Bernhardt’s only goal was an exodus of civil servants who he thinks stand in the way of doing favors for his former corporate clients," Rokala adds.

In a statement, BLM spokesman Derrick Henry says the report "refuted" claims by Grijalva and other critics that the reorganization was "hastily planned."

"The relocation of the Bureau’s headquarters to Grand Junction and its employees to other Western states is commonsense," Henry notes. "The Bureau will be better positioned to better serve the American public through this relocation in executing its multiple-use mission."

The GAO report included four recommendations for the BLM to improve the reorganization process, including establishing performance measures and developing a plan to fill staff vacancies. The agency says the reorganization won't be complete until the end of 2020, but it expects to have its new headquarters in Grand Junction fully staffed by July 1.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff