Administration says the moves will better position employees to manage lands, though critics warn of resulting staff cuts.
The Interior Department is moving one of its bureau’s headquarters out of the nation’s capital and to Colorado, the department announced on Tuesday, fulfilling a promise the Trump administration made shortly after the president took office.
The Bureau of Land Management will move 27 of its Washington, D.C.-based employees to Grand Junction in western Colorado, in a move proponents of the relocation say will better position the agency to interact with stakeholders and the land it protects. Currently, about 96% of BLM employees work outside of Washington.
Joe Balash, Interior's assistant secretary for land and mineral management, told reporters an additional 220 Washington-based employees will be relocated to states around the country. He promised Interior would work with each impacted employee over the next 15 months to determine "if they want to move and what works best for their personal and professional situation." In response to criticism that the move was unnecessary and a waste of money, Balash emphasized the need to disburse BLM's "top-heavy" Washington workforce to the bureau's state offices.
"One of the really important elements here that is going to be a byproduct of this is the opportunity for senior BLM employees to help mentor those who are coming up through the ranks," Balash said. "The institutional knowledge, the expertise is [in Washington] and if we can redistribute and relocate these employees to the state offices, they will help pass on the institutional knowledge and help bring up the next generation of BLM leaders."
Interior officials met with affected BLM employees this week to explain the decision and help them determine their best course of action. Some workers, he said, are excited to move out west, while others are likely to receive early retirement offers or be placed in other BLM and Interior positions in the Washington region.
All told, 61 BLM employees will remain in D.C, because they work in budgeting, congressional affairs, regulatory affairs or Freedom of Information Act compliance. The department deemed an additional 74 positions as "no longer necessary in the national region" and will redistribute the funding for them to state offices.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who strongly advocated for his home state as the destination for the move, said it would mark an important step because the bureau’s decision makers will be “closer to the people they serve and the public lands they manage.”
“The problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve,” Gardner said. “Ninety-nine percent of the land the BLM manages is west of the Mississippi River, and so should be the BLM headquarters. This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands, and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government.”
Interior requested $10.5 million for relocation costs in its fiscal 2020 budget after Congress allocated $14 million for the project in fiscal 2019. The department asked for a total of $27.6 million for its reorganization implementation, which included its plans to reshuffle its non-D.C. offices into 12 unified regions.
Balash declined to say how much the department expects to spend on relocating employees and standing up new offices, but estimated Interior would save at least $50 million over the next 20 years. He said Interior would have saved money almost regardless of what location was selected for the new headquarters, as employees in the capital region receive among the highest locality pay adjustments. Balash suggested the savings could be as high as $100 million, depending on how many employees opt to relocate.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the move represented not just managerial improvements, but would serve as a boon to the communities where employees will soon be located.
"Under our proposal, every Western state will gain additional staff resources," Bernhardt said. "This approach will play an invaluable role in serving the American people more efficiently while also advancing the Bureau of Land Management's multiple-use mission."
Administration officials have said the move would have the added benefits of enabling employees to live in cheaper areas, as well as reducing the government’s real estate and travel costs.
BLM could still face hurdles in finalizing its plan, as the House has passed legislation to block the relocation from moving forward. While lawmakers have provided some initial funding for the reorganization effort, some have grown frustrated by what they see as a lack of transparency and insight into planning.
“The committee is not convinced of the efficacy of moving additional personnel out of the headquarters area when approximately 93% of bureau employees are already working in the field and directs that no additional relocations of headquarters staff take place,” Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee said in the report accompanying its fiscal 2020 spending bill for Interior. The House-passed bill has yet to receive any consideration in the Senate, which has not yet taken up any fiscal 2020 spending measures.
Interior sent a letter on Tuesday notifying appropriators of its intentions.
"They have a lot of questions and we'll be working with them through that process," Balash said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, blasted BLM’s announcement, calling it a gift to industry that will lead to staff cuts.
“Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s home town just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability,” Grijalva said. “The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here.”
He added there is a compelling reason for BLM to keep employees in Washington, namely that they interact with other Interior offices and federal agencies, as well as Congress.
Western Values Project Deputy Director Jayson O’Neill called the motives behind the move “dubious at best.”
“Bernhardt and his team of political cronies have proven over and over again that their preset agenda focuses on sweetheart deals for industry and special interests at the expense of our nation’s public lands,” O’Neill said. “This move will waste more tax dollars and allow more political meddling by Trump’s conflicted appointees into decisions impacting public lands and wildlife.”
Interior is also planning to move its U.S. Geological Survey headquarters west as part of a vision first laid out by former Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The Appropriations Committee also said USGS has not demonstrated a “strong foundational analysis” or any “compelling argument” for moving its headquarters west.
“A relocation of the magnitude proposed in the budget request would dramatically change the organization, have significant financial costs, and impact the Survey’s effectiveness and strategic national-level partnerships with federal agencies, states, scientific organizations, and stakeholders,” the panel wrote. “The Survey should not commit federal funds or personnel time to this relocation but instead focus its efforts on ensuring Survey operations are open and transparent, the quality and objectivity of Survey science is maintained, and investments are leveraged.”
The Trump administration recently announced it will move two Agriculture Department offices from Washington to Kansas City. Democratic lawmakers are also looking to block that move, while most of the affected employees have said they will not relocate.
This story has been updated throughout with more information from the Interior Department.