Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the department is finding "phenomenal" people to fill vacant positions.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the department is finding "phenomenal" people to fill vacant positions. Evan Vucci / AP

Most Interior Employees Reject Mandatory Reassignments, Secretary Says

Despite widespread vacancies, department says Bureau of Land Management is in "pretty good shape."

Less than half of employees at the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management have accepted mandatory reassignments to various western states, instead opting to retire or find new jobs. 

The Interior Department is now facing a large number of vacancies as BLM looks to stand up its new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado, and augment state-level offices. The agency issued management-directed reassignment letters to 173 employees in November, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told a Senate panel on Wednesday, and 80 have accepted. Employees had to notify BLM of their decision by mid-December. 

Bernhardt told lawmakers he has no concerns about unfilled positions, saying BLM is hiring at the local level to backfill any vacancies. 

“I received feedback on a number of panels that are doing interviews,” Bernhardt said. “The caliber of people and number of people applying for these positions is through the roof and phenomenal.”

BLM is planning to place 27 permanent employees at its new headquarters. It stood up the office late last year and has been cycling staffers through on a rotational basis ever since. Bernhardt told lawmakers the headquarters location would be ready to go when BLM’s lease near the U.S. Capitol Building expires later this year, saying the employee rotations are serving as “beta testing.” 

“I feel very confident that we’re headed along a course that we’re going to be very successful with this,” the secretary said. “We've also ensured we have backups for our [assistant directors] and our division chiefs, so I feel like we are in pretty good shape right now.” He conceded there are significant vacancies in BLM’s top ranks, but noted many of those predated the relocations. 

William Perry Pendley, BLM’s acting director, recently told The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel it takes a year for the agency to hire anyone and that is causing backlogs in filling positions vacated by departing Washington employees. All told, BLM plans to relocate about 250 positions west. Pendley said the agency is “not struggling” to fill positions, but instead it “takes forever” to get people on board. BLM did not respond to an inquiry asking for specific data on applications and hiring. 

Democrats in Congress have struggled for months to get more information from Interior to justify the relocations and on how many employees accepted the offers. The House Natural Resources Committee voted last month to subpoena the department to provide relevant documents. 

BLM employees have told Government Executive that even some of those who have accepted their reassignments are still looking for jobs in Washington and will come back home as soon as possible. Many employees have already found new jobs and left the agency. The workers all suggested morale at the Washington office has plummeted, mistrust of leadership has grown and a sinking feeling that the Trump administration is seeking to sideline important work has set in.

Interior has defended the move by highlighting that nearly all of the land BLM manages is in western states, so it makes sense for the decision-makers to be there too. Additionally, Trump administration officials have said the move will lower lease payments, reduce travel costs and generate savings by paying employees smaller cost-of-living locality rates. Employees and other critics of the plan, however, have noted that about 97% of BLM’s workforce is already located in the western United States. Relocating employees out of Washington will make enforcement actions carry less weight, they said, and reduce the influence BLM has within Interior and the rest of the Trump administration.

The Government Accountability Office is reviewing the relocation effort.