BLM begins move out of Washington
- By Lia Russell
- Jan 09, 2020
Land in California under management by BLM
The Bureau of Land Management started the controversial move of its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo. on Jan. 2, the agency confirmed.
"At this time, senior leaders who will one day report to Grand Junction full-time are splitting their time between Grand Junction and Washington as they continue with the task of deploying their personnel to new duty stations across the West," BLM spokesman Derrick Henry said in an email. "In some cases, the positions to be located there have been vacant and we are working to fill them. Tentative offers have been made to some; however, senior level positions must be approved by the Office of Personnel Management and we are still in that process."
Henry said the relocation process is expected to be concluded by mid-spring. Eventually, 323 BLM headquarters jobs will be moved out of Washington, with about 30 jobs heading to Grand Junction and an additional 222 posts shifting to regional headquarters and 74 to state offices. Under the plan, 60 BLM employees will be based in a much-reduced Washington office.
William Perry Pendley, the acting director of BLM, told agency employees in an all-staff email obtained by FCW that two-thirds of the 153 employees who were given orders to relocate accepted their new assignments.
Democrats in Congress opposed the move, but efforts to leverage the appropriations process to thwart the change ultimately failed, and the agency has the needed funding to go ahead with the relocation.
The Trump administration wants the shift to bring BLM leadership closer to the lands it manages -- which are largely west of the Mississippi.
"Through the years, the requirements imposed upon federal land managers have increased dramatically, as a result of acts of Congress, rulemakings by agencies, and numerous judicial decisions," Pendley testified at a Sept. 10 hearing of House Natural Resources Committee. "To comply efficiently with its land management obligations, there is no substitute for being on the ground to see the land and know its people, and to develop a sense of the local impacts of BLM's decisions in a deeper and more meaningful way than one can do as a visitor."
Retired BLM officials told FCW the move has demoralized workers and risks hamstringing the close relationship between BLM and congressional staff, leaving the District office with a skeleton crew of political appointees and the agency in slow decline.
"People are leaving in droves," former BLM Communications Director Celia Boddington said an interview. Though she retired in 2015, she continues to keep up with her former colleagues at the agency. "Of all the people I talked to, I have yet to meet one who is moving. I know of a huge number of people who are moving on to other positions."
During his tours of duty in Washington as a junior staffer and later BLM deputy director, Steve Ellis said that he often rubbed shoulders with congressional aides and key staff in agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget that directly oversaw funding for the Bureau.
"The 3% of BLM staff that are in the Washington, D.C., office are there for a reason. They're there to advise political appointees and career senior officials," Ellis said in an interview with FCW. "You were constantly going to the Hill and getting beers or coffee with congressional staff to talk about wildfire policy, oil and gas policies, mineral rights. It was a way to get around the political firewall and build relationships on both sides of the aisle."
Elaine Zielinski, another retired BLM official who ended her career as the Arizona office state director, said that it was likely the reorganization would render BLM ineffective, unable to carry out its mission and likely to collapse at some point down the road.
"This decision has made the BLM's job very difficult,” Zielinski said in an interview. "The whole purpose of the Washington, D.C., office is to deal with questions from Congress, attend hearings and answer requests for information. This only exists in D.C. There's no budget people in state offices or even the Department of the Interior."
Zielinski and Ellis said that career officials have the resources and expertise needed to give informed advice and help make long-term decisions that political appointees like the director cannot.
Boddington said the move to Grand Junction and reorganization was based on the idea that employees could "work from anywhere." She stated: "That's not true. Physical proximity to the Hill and OMB is important," adding that she worries that the move is weakening BLM's land management function by design.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if it foreshadowed another movement for BLM to transfer [public lands] to states or selling them off. It's setting up BLM for failure," she said.
Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.
Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.