Last week, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) introduced legislation into their respective chambers to authorize moving the Bureau of Land Management’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to the Western U.S.
Their rationale? That 99 percent of the 247.3 million acres the agency manages is located west of the Mississippi River, and that having decision-makers on the ground in communities affected by those decisions will lead to better policy.
We are not so sure.
There are several problems with moving the BLM headquarters, not the first of which is that public lands are the birthright of all Americans, not just those living adjacent to them.
There is also the reason why BLM offices are in the nation’s capital: That is where all members of Congress can access the agency’s leaders. Remove them from D.C., and you risk removing these lands from the national conscience.
Move skeptics say that is the point of the proposal – to allow extractive industries, including the energy companies that heavily influence Western governors and state legislatures, to gain more control of BLM lands and minerals.
Local community concerns must be considered in BLM decisions – possibly to a greater degree than other interests – but moving the BLM’s headquarters will not ensure that will happen.
One BLM proposal designed to better engage the public earlier in natural resource and land-use planning was the Planning 2.0 rule that Republicans recently jettisoned using the Congressional Review Act. That rule had problems but was a good start and could have been revised, instead of killed.
The BLM currently employs almost 10,000 staff across the continental U.S. and Alaska. Only 600, or 6 percent, work in the metro D.C. area. That means that 94 percent of BLM’s national workforce is already in a field, district or state office.
Colorado alone is home to almost 1,000 BLM employees.
The BLM is already decentralized. There are 12 state directors who report to another dozen directors of BLM program offices who report to the BLM’s top brass. Most in D.C.-based leadership positions started with the agency long ago and know the West. Maybe they just need to spend more time here? That would certainly be cheaper than establishing an entirely new headquarters, the cost of which is yet to be estimated.
It does not appear to be a geographic problem that is thwarting agency decision-making. Grand Junction, where Gardner and Tipton propose the BLM’s new home locate, would certainly benefit from new jobs and becoming a public lands power center, but moving personnel does not necessarily solve what is perhaps more of an internal communications problem.
A move may, in fact, create more problems, possibly making it harder to interract with Congress to lobby for policies and the agency’s budget.
And why move just the BLM? The U.S. Forest Service manages close to 200 million acres, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 90 million and the National Park Service 80 million acres, also largely in the West.
Gardner said that constituents generally feel like they have a great relationship with their local BLM staff, but “something happens on the way to Washington that changes that.”
Why, with all the staff in the West, is the public’s message not getting up the chain of command? That is a worthwhile line of inquiry.
On first pass, moving the BLM headquarters is not.