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The Attempt to Dismantle the Bureau of Land Management

On August 15, 2019, the Department of Interior (DOI) announced that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would begin implementing a plan to move its Headquarters from Washington, D.C. to western states, by moving 27 top officials to Grand Junction, Colorado, and scattering other D.C.-based staff and leadership to existing offices in several western states. About 300 of BLM’s approximate 10,000 employees are currently based in Washington, D.C. This move would leave only about 61 workers in Washington, D.C.

On July 16, 2019, DOI provided the House Appropriation Committee with a 30-day period to submit questions to DOI about the move and the reallocation of $5 million to cover related costs. Upon the expiration of the 30-day period on August 15th, DOI announced that it would proceed with its reorganization plans, claiming that all questions from lawmakers had been addressed.

A spokesperson for Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN), the Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the Interior Department said that the Administration’s characterization of Congress not having any opposition to the reorganization was false. She also said, “Interior’s initial relocation plan was significantly lacking in the details necessary for the Committee to evaluate this proposal. That’s why Congress, in a bipartisan and bicameral manner, requested more information — to ensure the transparency and accountability of the administration’s actions. It’s absurd for the administration to assume Congressional approval when the Committee has not yet received sufficient answers to outstanding questions about the plan’s feasibility, costs, legality, and personnel issues. This is clearly an attempt by the Trump administration to steamroll ahead with this plan without regard to the concerns of a co-equal branch of government.”

House Appropriations Committee staffers say talks with BLM about the request are ongoing and that the congressional panels were under no obligation to meet a 30-day timeline for approving BLM’s financial plans related to the relocation effort.

The Administration states this reorganization is necessary in order to: 1) place decision-making closer to the affected lands; 2) make the agency more responsive to western constituents; 3) make it easier for western constituents and stakeholders to meet with BLM Headquarters and cut costs; and 4) increase the western culture of BLM. This move would not serve any of DOI’s stated purposes and would, for all intents and purposes, dismantle the BLM.

The proposed move will not move BLM’s decision-making closer to the land its manages. About 97 percent of BLM employees are already located on-the-ground in the western states. BLM State Directors and Field Office Managers have the authority to make land use decisions, leasing and permitting decisions, provide public land user information and assistance, and facilitate coordination with state, tribal, and local governments. Only about 3 percent of BLM’s employees is located in Washington, D.C. Those employees’ work is focused on policy, oversight, and coordination with other federal agencies and Congress, thus making their presence in Washington, D.C., not only desirable, but essential.

The proposed move will not make BLM more responsive to western constituents. The 97 percent of BLM employees are already located in the west in 11 state offices and approximately 160 district and field offices. The employees in these offices already work with western constituents on a daily basis to make decisions about the management and use of public lands, as well as to provide assistance and information to the public about those lands. These employees have already developed working relationships with the constituents and stakeholders from their local communities. The proposed reorganization will do nothing to improve BLM’s responsiveness to local constituents. It will also not put more “boots on the ground”. The staff members who would be moved across the west would continue to provide program guidance, oversight, and technical advice to the BLM Director and Assistant Directors. They would not be doing “boots on the ground” permitting or field work.

The proposed reorganization will not make it easier for western constituents and stakeholders to meet with BLM Headquarters and cut costs. Even if western constituents are traveling from states relatively closer to Colorado than Washington, D.C., it would be less likely that there would be a non-stop flight from a western city to Grand Junction than from that same city to Washington D.C., perhaps resulting in a similar travel time than is currently experienced. There would be no guarantee that flights between western cities and Grand Junction, Colorado would be significantly less expensive than those between the same cities and Washington, D.C. BLM’s costs would also increase, not only due to the $50,000-$100,000 expense to move each of the approximate 300 employees, but also for the additional work-related travel to Washington, D.C. or other western states where other Headquarters staff have been relocated.

The proposed move will not improve the western cultural of the BLM. Most BLM employees begin their careers in the west and later move to Washington, D.C. The Washington, D.C. Office thus benefits from the field and program operations knowledge that these employees bring with them. At the same time, the employees learn about work at DOI, other agencies, and Congress. A good number of these employees choose to leave Washington, D.C., and return to a Field Office, often as new Field Office Managers, which benefits the local Field Offices. This reorganization plan would eliminate this development path.

Nothing will be gained from moving D.C. staff to western states. In fact, this move would make it more difficult for BLM staff to meet with and work with the DOI Secretary, DOI staff, other federal agencies, Congressional staff and national stakeholder organizations, which would hinder or eliminate the BLM’s participation in legislative, budget, and policy discussions with the Department and Congress in Washington, D.C., weakening the BLM’s influence in national public land policies. This reorganization will also likely lead to a large number of D.C. staffers leaving the BLM rather than being forced to move to a western state, thus weeding out the staff with the expertise and knowledge that BLM needs to function well, thus creating a weak and ineffective BLM management structure. Given that William Perry Pendley was recently appointed as the acting BLM Deputy Director, Policy and Programs, and is “exercising authority of the Director” is clear that these reasons are the likely the actual reason why BLM is pushing forward with this move, while Congress remains away on its August recess until September 9th. Pendley is a self-proclaimed Sage Brush Rebel and wrote an article in the publication National Review in 2016 that “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold.”

BLM’s proposed reorganization will increase the likelihood that BLM will turn over the management of BLM-managed public lands to the western states. Once the BLM is sufficiently weakened, every citizen, as an owner of the public lands, will have fewer (and perhaps no) opportunities to influence management of these lands.

The Public Lands Foundation, a national non-profit organization made up of mostly retired BLM employees, has said this reorganization plan is designed to fail and will effectively dismantle the BLM. A former Deputy Director of the BLM, Steve Ellis, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be my playbook.”