Agency Move Favors Oil and Gas Industry, Critics Say

The Trump administration is moving staff from another agency out of Washington, D.C., citing efficiency and cost savings as reasons. If you want to improve the responsiveness of the Bureau of Land Management, start by filling vacant positions, says an employees’ association.

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The Trump administration announced last week it will move another federal agency out of Washington, D.C., relocating dozens of management-level employees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). While the administration claims the move is necessary to increase agency responsiveness, critics of the decision say the BLM reorganization is part of a broader pattern of poor management and lack of respect for the federal workforce.

BLM officials made the announcement July 16, explaining the decision to move the Interior Department Agency’s headquarters from the National Capital Region to Grand Junction, Colorado. The bureau has nearly 10,000 employees, with only 550 currently located in Washington, D.C.

“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,” said Interior Secretary David Berhardt, in a statement. “Shifting critical leadership positions and supporting staff to Western states — where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located — is not only a better management system, it is beneficial to the interest of the American public in these communities, cities, counties and states.”

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The Palisade Wilderness Study Area near Grand Junction. (Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management)

If the move is implemented as outlined, 61 BLM employees will remain in DC, 222 will be redistributed in local BLM offices throughout the West and 27 employees will establish the “new headquarters” in Western Colorado. BLM manages 245 million across the country, nearly all of which are located in rural communities of the West.

Much like USDA’s decision and rationale to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), numerous critics of the BLM relocation plan are not convinced by the administration’s statements about saving money and making the agency more responsive.

“I don’t think anyone was complaining about a lack of responsiveness at BLM, particularly the oil, gas and mining industries,” said Jeff Ruch, Pacific director at the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “If anything, this administration has had an open door policy so that they get what they want.”

Ruch is referring to BLM decisions since 2017 to pursue “increased energy dominance” by opening additional federal lands to fossil fuel and mining development. “The BLM is understaffed as it is,” Ruch said. “The White House has proposed budget cuts each year they have been in office despite a bigger workload of processing more permits for energy and mining.”

“If they were interested in actually improving performance,” Ruch said, Interior Secretary Bernhardt “would at the very least appoint a functioning staff. Everyone in BLM is an ‘acting’ appointment. We’re two and a half years in and there has not even been a nomination for BLM director.”

Representative Raul Grijalva (D-New Mexico), the lead congressional Democrat on BLM issues and chair of the Natural Resources Committee, said the move would give oil and gas interests more of an advantage in gaining access to public lands.

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“This administration has been handing over public lands to fossil fuel companies at record speed, and this move is part of that agenda,” Grijalva said. “Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s hometown just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability. The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward. The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here.”

An oil and gas operation in Colorado that’s regulated by the Bureau of Land Management. (Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management Oil and Gas Leasing informational video.)

Changes to BLM staff and location of the headquarters have been discussed since the early days of the Trump administration when Ryan Zinke was head of Interior, according to Kate Kelly, Public Lands Director of the Center for American Progress. “While this is a huge blow to the morale and talent at BLM, I don’t think you can overestimate the politics of this decision,” Kelly said.

“There are Senate and local elections coming in 2020 in Colorado,” Kelly said. “Plus, Interior Secretary Bernhardt is from Grand Junction, as are many other major players in the oil industry. And, when the BLM employees are redistributed to local offices, every state in the West is going to gain a number of federal employees.”

Kelly said that moving key policy staff away from the Capital Region, where the Secretary of Interior and Congress are located, doesn’t make sense. “Like it or not, D.C. is the place where many agency decisions are made,” Kelly said. “From the budget to policy, having staff available on site where the Secretary sits is very important to informing good decision-making.”

Retaining those staff through the reorganization also worries Kelly, who points to the large number of USDA employees choosing to retire or resign rather than relocate to Kansas City.

Last week, USDA announced that only 145 ERS and NIFA workers had chosen to move along with the research agencies. Another 250 employees have declined to stick with their employer because of the decision.

“Given all the employees who have resigned in recent months in light of this ill-advised relocation, plus those who say they will not relocate, USDA is likely to retain less than 10% of the total workforce at these two agencies once all is said and done,” said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents the USDA employees, in a statement. “In addition to the direct costs of the relocation, the resulting brain drain from this massive loss of talent will severely damage NIFA and ERS, and it will take years to rebuild the highly specialized workforce at these agencies.”

Congressional opposition to both the USDA and BLM relocations continues to surface, as do concerns about the cost-effectiveness of the agency projections. Questions remain about how congressional action through the budget process can affect both decisions.

The BLM’s 245 million acres of public forest, grass and rangelands are located primarily in 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation.

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