BLM Move of Headquarters and DC Staff Will Have Major Impacts on Western Lands and Wild Herds

You are here

A massive reorganization of the BLM that involves moving its headquarters to Grand Junction, CO and transferring  most of its Washington, D.C. staff out west is raising concerns about the future of federal lands and the agency tasked with managing and conserving them.  Top on the list is further dysfunction within a major government agency, surrender of federal lands to local control and corporate interests, and a growing threat to the environment and wild horses and burros.

UPDATE (8/1/19): Less than a week after making public its intent to relocate the agency to Colorado, the Trump Administration announced that it was appointing William Perry Pendley, to the lead the BLM. Pendley  is a lawyer who has spent 30 years advocating for state takeover of federal lands. His appointment only intensifies the concerns detailed in this blog.

(July 26, 2019)...  Last week, the Trump Administration announced that it will “establish” Grand Junction, Colorado as the new national headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by relocating 27 key “leadership” positions there and  another 58 former DC BLM staffers across the state.  By the end of FY 2020, the Department of Interior’s goal is to move the majority of the current BLM staff in Washington, D.C. west of the Rockies, leaving only a core staff of around 60 in the nation’s capital. Other states, including Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, will also be welcoming BLM employees relocated from DC, who will be reporting to BLM state directors instead of headquarters staff.  

The BLM, which manages almost 248 million acres, or 10%, of all federal land, has roughly 10,000 employees.  Of those, around 400 work in Washington, D.C. The rest are assigned to state headquarters and field offices, mostly in western states. 

Although the reorganization of the BLM is moving forward under the direction of current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, it was the vision of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was forced to resign after multiple ethic investigations.  Before assuming this cabinet position, Mr. Bernhardt was a big oil, mining, and agriculture lobbyist and a wealthy Washington insider – all of which raises red flags about his qualifications and priorities as the head of the agency. Moreover, he just happens to hail from Rifle, CO, a small city not far from Grand Junction. 

In a letter to legislators, Joe Balash, Department of Interior, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals, justified the reorganization, declaring that it “will delegate more responsibility and authority down to the field, optimize services available to the American people, is demonstrably cost-effective, and will provide an increased presence closer to the resources the BLM staff manages.” 

But not everyone is buying that “good for America, good for the BLM” explanation.

Loss of Functionality of the BLM/Control of Federal Lands 

“It’s a lousy proposal,” says Dennis Willis, a retired BLM rangeland specialist, adding that “it’s an attempt to dismantle and fragment the agency.”  

Mr. Wills worked in rangeland management and recreation programs for 35 years, both in DC and across field offices in Utah and Nevada.  

One of his major concerns is functionality, and specifically the loss of coordination that will occur when veteran BLM policy officials are moved out of the nation’s capital.  As he puts it – they’re there for a reason: to directly work with and respond to Congress and their colleagues in other federal agencies, such as the United States Forest Service. 

From his time on Capitol Hill, Mr. Willis maintains that “DC people need to talk to other DC people” when, for example, the BLM is preparing Congressional briefs or developing national policy because the complexity of such matters often requires input from different programs within the agency. 

“There are obvious links between livestock grazing, wild horses and recreation,” he says.  “Under the proposed reorganization, the Washington level range staff will be in Boise, the wild horse staff in Reno, and recreation and visitor services will be in Salt Lake.  All of them will be removed from the directorate who supervise them and who should be reliant upon their staff for briefing on issues. It is hard to imagine an organization more designed for failure.”  

Mr. Willis also challenges the Assistant Secretary’s claim that transferring BLM staff with “experience and expertise in performing duties that address headquarters priorities” out of DC will improve “each state's localized, day-to-day operations.”  Given that the vast majority of BLM employees are already working in state and field offices, he sees no advantage in relocating the few hundred from Washington. 

Describing the BLM as highly decentralized already, he argues, “Part of agency culture is the delegation of decision making to the lowest level of the organization possible.  Decisions affecting a field office are made at the field office level. So, it’s disingenuous of this Administration to talk about moving the decision-making closer to the affected land and people.”

Other former BLM staffers, including past BLM Directors Robert V. Abbey and Patrick Shea, have a more ominous concern about the major reshuffling of staff: that it’s the first step in abolishing the entire agency and transferring millions of acres of federal land to the states - a change that would be very much in line with the growing and powerful “coordination movement” that wants federal land to be turned over to local and state control.  The recent appointment of a lawyer who has made a career of advocating for local control of federal lands to head the BLM only heightens these concerns. 

Such a fear is more than justified, given Mr. Balash’s outright acknowledgment of who was pushing for the reorganization.  He states, “From the early stages of the BLM reorganization effort, consistent with feedback from a broad range of states and partners, the BLM has committed that the State Office structure will be maintained. This proposal not only maintains that structure but serves to strengthen the Bureau's organization at the state level even further.”

Surrender of Federal Lands to Local Control and Exploitation  

According to Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, the proposal to move the BLM to Grand Junction is part of a broader agenda to hand over federal lands to local governments and the extractive industries - ranching, drilling, logging, and mining - that control them so that federal lands can be prioritized for private profits. 

Founded in 1993, Western Watersheds Project is a nonprofit environmental conservation group whose mission is to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives, and legal advocacy.

Ultimately, Mr. Molvar argues the reorganization “will marginalize the interests of the American public” because promoters of corporate interests, often in concert with local interests, will have greater access to, and be able to apply even more pressure on, state and field BLM offices, thereby preventing Congress from having as much influence over public land management. 

A case in point is Idaho.  Nineteen new staff will be moved there, including  14 rangeland management positions currently in Washington, D.C., to support the “state's staffing and policy priorities.”  The problem is that BLM Idaho already prioritizes the interests of private ranchers who graze their livestock on almost 12 million acres of federal lands within the state, while turning a blind eye to the environment degredation caused by intensive livestock grazing on public lands. 

The BLM's relocation plan will exacerbate this problem since, according according to Mr. Balash’s letter, the extra staffing in Idaho will provide “extra capacity to manage over 1,900 permits” in order to “greatly expand and enhance the State's grazing program.”

Moreover, now that John Ruhs,  who has been extremely friendly to ranching interests, is State Director in Idaho, word on the street is that locating the BLM’s range program in Idaho could mean that Secretary Bernhardt hopes to give Mr. Ruhl de facto control of the agency’s range program country-wide. Mr. Ruhs was once interim Deputy Director of the BLM. 

The uprooting of career BLM employees in DC, particularly scientists, is another worry shared by Mr. Molvar and others.  “Forcing them to move to a conservative western town might cause some to quit or retire,” he says, emphasizing that “the shift would suit right-wing interests bent on hollowing out federal agencies and undermining the enforcement of federal regulations that protect the environment.”

Such a bailout is already occurring in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) after Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recently announced the transfer of most staff from its research agencies in Washington, D.C. to Kansas City.  According to reports, only about one-third have agreed to the relocation, which the American Federation of Government Employees says is “an attempt to hollow out and dismantle USDA science that helps farmers and protects our food supply.”

Further Threat to Our Wild Herds

Not surprisingly, the BLM reorganization will not bode well for the nation's federally-protected  wild horses and burros. 

It’s no secret that most ranchers permitted to graze livestock on public rangelands have a contentious relationship with the wild herds that share those same rangelands.  Many of these permittees view wild horses and burros are as competition for cheap forage, available to ranchers because of the steep tax subsidies that prop up the public lands ranching program. Many of these ranchers scapegoat wild horses and burros as the only cause of degradation to forage and water resources and are the driving force behind the endless and unsustainable cycle of roundups and removals. 

State and field offices often have cozy relationships with  local ranchers - as well as livestock boards and other special interest ranching/agricultural groups.  Now, with the transfer of 49 positions to the Nevada state office and 15 positions to the Wyoming state office, and a good portion of them being assigned to the wild horses and burro program, expect those relationships to become even cozier.  

While Mr. Balash justifies the need for more staff in Nevada, for example, because the state has the largest population of wild horses and burros, he neglects to mention that Nevada also has the most public land authorized for livestock grazing in BLM - about 43 million acres - and permits about 2 million Animal Unit Months (AUMS), or the equivalent of almost 170,000 cow/calf pairs grazing year round.  Compare that to the estimated 47,000 wild horses and burros managed on 14 million acres of land in the state.   

Further, although the BLM has grossly mismanaged the wild horses and burros that it was tasked with protecting and managing under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, a more disturbing scenario would be the relinquishment of federal lands, including the protected habitat of wild horses and burros, to the states. 

That said, such a move would be a legislative nightmare because the Wild Horse and Burro Act is a federal act, so wild herds would continue to have some form of federal protection.  Most likely, the Act would need to be amended to reflect any necessary changes to wild horse and burro management as a result of the change in land designation, which could be a highly contentious process. Ultimately, state control would undermine the federal law, serving the ultimate goal of ranching interests to repeal the Wild Horse Act so that management of Americ's iconic wild horses and burros can return to private hands, turning back the clock five decades to a time when “mustangers” brutally rounded up wild horses and shipped them off for slaughter.

Conclusion

The top guns at the Interior Department continue to promote the reorganization of the BLM  - or its new “state-by state approach“ to management - as a way to increase the agency’s “footprint” across the West and better serve the American people.  However, while the BLM’s footprint will certainly be larger, it wouldn’t be the American people who benefit. The public lands belong to all Americans, but the influx of staffing “closer to the resources” that the BLM manages, and the “locally coordinated decision making” that will result, will shift power over federal land policy from the American public to local hands. This -- combined with the installation of an advocate for selling off the public land as head of the BLM -- could pave the way for a giant giveaway of federal lands to private industries bent on profit and exploitation at the expense of Americans and our valued natural resources. This is something all Americans should be concerned about.