Haaland: BLM headquarters coming back to Washington

Capitol Hill Republicans had backed moving the bureau’s top leadership to the West

Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland testified during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Department of the Interior budget in July.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland testified during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Department of the Interior budget in July. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 17, 2021 at 6:04pm

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland plans to bring the Bureau of Land Management’s national headquarters back to Washington, D.C., reversing a Trump administration move to relocate it to Grand Junction, Colo.

Haaland’s announcement garnered swift criticism from Capitol Hill Republicans who had backed moving the bureau’s top leadership to the West.

The secretary informed BLM employees Friday, according to a department press release that indicated the move will be done in coordination with Congress.

The Grand Junction office will “expand as the bureau’s official western headquarters” and serve as a leadership center there, Haaland said.

“There’s no doubt that the BLM should have a leadership presence in Washington, D.C. – like all the other land management agencies – to ensure that it has access to the policy-, budget-, and decision-making levers to best carry out its mission,” Haaland said in the release. “In addition, the BLM’s robust presence in Colorado and across the West will continue to grow.”

Other than “core leadership positions,” BLM employees will not be required to relocate to Washington due to the move. The bureau has a workforce of more than 7,000 employees across the country responsible for managing nearly one-fifth of the nation’s public lands, with more than 95 percent of those employees already working outside of Washington, according to the department.

Supporters of moving the headquarters had noted that the overwhelming majority of land the bureau oversees is west of the Mississippi River and argued its top officials should be closer to the areas affected by their decisions.

Trump administration officials also cited high Washington real estate costs as a reason for the move, but the Interior Department’s inspector general found the Trump administration “never seriously contemplated” signing a new lease for the BLM headquarters in Washington, near the Navy Yard neighborhood, before announcing the move to Grand Junction.

“Simply stated, the evidence established that the Department never seriously contemplated renewing that lease or moving BLM staff into a new commercial location in the Washington, DC area,” according to that report.

Former Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., whom Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., defeated in November, called himself the “chief architect” of the Grand Junction shift.

The Biden administration said in February it would review the “ramifications” of moving the bureau’s headquarters to the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains.

Nominee awaits

BLM has gone without a Senate-confirmed director since the Obama administration. President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the bureau advanced out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July but has yet to receive a floor vote.

Critics of the move to Grand Junction have described it as highly disruptive to the agency and noted that hundreds of workers either retired or left the agency rather than make the transition.

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee, however, issued a statement Friday criticizing Haaland’s “misguided, partisan decision” as having nothing to do with good land management but rather “centralizing and growing big government” and urged the department to reconsider.

“A two-quarterback BLM system with one headquarters in D.C. and another headquarters in Colorado will layer bureaucracies, further confusing and complicating an already confused and complicated agency,” the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, said. “A Friday afternoon audible to reverse a move that would save millions of taxpayer dollars and put employees closer to the people affected by their decisions is another bad play call by a Biden administration already on the hot seat.”

During a recent markup of the committee’s portion of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., offered an amendment prohibiting funds in that legislation from being used to close the headquarters in Grand Junction. Her proposal was accepted by unanimous consent.

In a statement, Boebert, whose district includes Grand Junction, criticized Hickenlooper and Colorado’s other Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, for not using procedural tactics such as blockading nominees in order to keep the national headquarters in Grand Junction.

“These new Grand Junction jobs need to be delivered, people should know about them and what they are, and the details shouldn’t be changed later,” Boebert said. “Today’s rushed decision isn’t about helping western communities. It is clearly a partisan attack targeting President [Donald] Trump’s administration.”

Bennet said in a statement that he was disappointed the national headquarters would be in Washington but described expanding a permanent western HQ in Grand Junction as a positive development.

He added that he would hold the administration accountable for staffing up the Grand Junction office.

“I welcome the prospect of the BLM Western Headquarters exercising leadership with respect to managing our public lands, outdoor recreation, conservation, renewable energy, and engagement with stakeholders and Tribes,” Bennet said. “I’ve spoken to DOI leadership about the importance of both staffing up the office to fill current vacancies and continuing to grow the BLM’s presence in Grand Junction — in number of employees and significance.”

In a statement, Hickenlooper said the “dual headquarters” approach should restore a fully functioning bureau while ensuring that it understands the West.

“We’ll keep working to secure jobs in Grand Junction, including senior leadership positions,” Hickenlooper said. “To succeed, the Western HQ must be a strong, permanent presence that engages the community and adds a Western perspective and value to the BLM’s mission.”