Move the Bureau of Land Management back to Washington where it belongs

Trump administration decision to relocate HQ to Grand Junction was a mistake that should be reversed

The Bureau of Land Management office in Grand Junction. (Bureau of Land Management)

It’s great news for Grand Junction that the Bureau of Land Management headquarters moved there.

But is it good for the agency, or the federal lands that the agency oversees, or the public functions it carries out?

No. And everyone knows it.

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That’s why federal officials should rescind the cynical Trump administration decision to relocate the headquarters to Colorado and return it to Washington, D.C., where it belongs.

Former Sen. Cory Gardner announced in July 2019 that the BLM headquarters would relocate to Grand Junction. It was a move the one-term Republican had championed, and he touted it as one of his signature accomplishments. The BLM, part of the Interior Department, manages about 12% of the land in the United States, much of it in the West, including Colorado, where it oversees about 8.3 million acres of land.

The move benefited from a bipartisan Colorado cheering section that included Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. Jared Polis, both Democrats, and today debate over the headquarters’ fate involves a rare instance of agreement between junior Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper and freshman hard-right Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, in whose district the headquarters sits and who has made retention of the facility one of her top causes.

Such collegiality reflects the common dishonesty of their position.

Advocates try to argue that a Grand Junction-based BLM can be more effective if its headquarters are closer to the lands in its portfolio. They’ve repeated this point for two years only because it’s easy to make, not because it’s true. From the beginning, people who understood how the bureau works and how Washington operates knew the relocation to be a sham.

“This isn’t an effort to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, it’s an attempt to dismantle it altogether,” Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jennifer Rokala wrote in the summer of 2019.

The Trump Interior Department was led by people whose idea of public lands management was to extract as much economic benefit from the land as possible, including through oil and gas production. Some, such as William Perry Pendley, recently the nominal head of the BLM, expressed doubt about the very notion of public lands. The Hill reported in 2019 that former BLM staff said the relocation would “functionally dismantle” the agency and would “make it tougher for high-level staff to coordinate with other agencies that work on public lands that will remain in D.C., such as the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, and other stakeholders like Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.” A Government Accountability Office report last year found that the move led to career BLM employees leaving the agency in droves and that the administration had failed to justify the move, according to the Nevada Current. Suspicions about the administration’s motives deepened when it was revealed the BLM would be sharing a building in Grand Junction with tenants Chevron and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. 

The business of Bureau leadership, as with the business of every other government function, consists of interacting with lawmakers and interest groups, who are centered in Washington. Were the BLM-relocation logic followed throughout government, the Securities and Exchange Commission would strike out for Manhattan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would move to Iowa, and the Pentagon would relocate to the Middle East.

Colorado officials know this. But more importantly the federal officials who will make the ultimate decision about the headquarters’ location know it.

In February, the Interior Department confirmed that it was reviewing the headquarters’ move to Colorado. The department’s new secretary, Deb Haaland, said in 2019 there was “no justification” for the relocation. “It is just a way to destroy the agency and make it easier for this administration to sell off our public lands to the highest bidder,” she said at the time. Biden’s pick to lead the BLM, Tracy Stone-Manning, has similarly criticized the move.

In a sign of how disingenuous the Trump administration’s rationale for the relocation was, it caused a staffing crisis that was entirely predictable. Only 41 staffers moved with BLM to Colorado while almost 300 chose to leave their positions rather than to head west.

It was unclear if Pendley himself actually worked in Colorado. An Interior spokesperson told Newsline last year that Pendley’s office was in Grand Junction and that he had a residence in the Denver area — conspicuously different than saying he worked in Grand Junction.

The Colorado politicians lobbying to have the headquarters stay put often point to the jobs it supports in Grand Junction and the economic benefit it provides the community. The facility no doubt is an asset to the city, and no one likes to see jobs go away.

But in weighing objectively the interests of one building against those of a whole agency, one arrives immediately and decisively at a single conclusion: The Bureau of Land Management headquarters belongs in the nation’s capital.

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