Dems, Former BLM Staff Slam Relocation Plans as Deadline Looms

Democrats say the Trump administration's plans to relocate hundreds of top Bureau of Land Management staffers to the West is a veiled attempt to reduce environmental oversight.
Democrats say the Trump administration's plans to relocate hundreds of top Bureau of Land Management staffers to the West is a veiled attempt to reduce environmental oversight. Christian Collins / Flickr
As career employees at the Bureau of Land Management’s Washington headquarters face an ultimatum over relocating to the West, congressional Democrats and former top BLM staffers are once again sounding the alarm over the impacts the move will have on the agency for years to come.

Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, spoke to reporters at the Capitol today, December 11, and repeated claims from Democrats and conservation groups that the BLM’s “reorganization” is a veiled attempt to dismantle the agency and reduce environmental oversight.

“It’s an attempt to remove any obstacles to the administration’s agenda of opening public lands to fossil-fuel corporations,” Grijalva said. “This move is not being made in good faith.”

Under the reorganization plan announced by the BLM earlier this year, about 27 employees will relocate to the agency’s new headquarters in Grand Junction, while hundreds of others will be shifted to field offices scattered across the West. In November, BLM leadership issued relocation notices to 159 top staffers, giving them thirty days to agree to the move or “be subject to a removal from Federal service.” That window ends December 12.

"They gave employees only thirty days, during the holiday season, in the middle of a school year, to decide whether they will uproot their families," Grijalva said.

Many high-level career employees are expected to quit the agency rather than make the move west, E&E News reported earlier this month. Former BLM deputy director of operations Henri Bisson, who worked for the agency for 34 years before retiring in 2009, appeared alongside Grijalva on Wednesday to call on the agency to reconsider its plans.

"No one knows how many BLM Washington office employees will actually move," Bisson said. "Based on things I have heard, it will be very few. The numbers are not good, and it's going to leave a huge vacuum of leadership in the Bureau in the future."

Ninety-seven percent of BLM employees already work in field offices, regional headquarters and other facilities in the West, where the agency manages nearly 250 million acres of federally owned land. Environmental groups say that the remaining few hundred employees in its D.C. headquarters are largely responsible for critical environmental-oversight functions, with extensive experience navigating complex regulatory frameworks like the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Forcing many of them out, conservation advocates say, is a deliberate attempt to make it easier for senior administration officials to open up more lands for fossil-fuel extraction and other industrial uses.

William Perry Pendley, the controversial former president of the Lakewood-based Mountain States Legal Foundation who was appointed as the BLM's acting director earlier this year, is not expected to be among those relocating to Grand Junction.

Along with Pendley, the BLM's reorganization has been championed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native and former oil lobbyist for Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Grijalva has asked the Government Accountability Office, a congressional oversight agency, to investigate the Department of the Interior's handling of the relocation. The Department of the Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment today.

“The Department remains committed to working through the accommodation process with the Committee,” a BLM spokesperson wrote in an email to Westword. “Having the people who make critical decisions about the lands and programs we manage located where those lands and programs actually are located will help provide a greater on-the-ground understanding and will also foster better partnerships with communities and organizations there.”

But Democrats and many former BLM officials disagree. Thirty members of the agency’s senior leadership sent a letter to Bernhardt in September to express their opposition to the move.

“This is an ill-conceived plan,” said Bob Abbey, a former BLM director who also spoke at the press conference. “This reorganization, if implemented, will prove to be disastrous for the health our nation’s public lands, for public lands stakeholders in rural communities, for tribal nations, and for the Bureau of Land Management."

Update, 12/11: This story has been updated to include comment from the BLM.
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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