WASHINGTON – Convenient air travel, consultation with Native American tribes and moving staff were some of the many issues brought up this week at a hearing by the House Committee on Natural Resources about relocating the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction.
Sen. Cory Gardner announced July 15 that the BLM headquarters would move from Washington to Grand Junction, calling it a “historic day for our nation’s public lands, western states, and the people of Colorado” in a tweet. The current headquarters is costly at $50 per square foot and will likely increase once the lease expires Dec. 31, so motions led by U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt are underway to facilitate the timely move.
William Pendley, deputy director for Policy and Programs of the BLM, noted the importance of completing the move, calling Bernhardt’s plan for relocation “compelling” with “fortuitous” timing.
“Secretary Bernhardt maintains that meaningful realignment is not simply about where functions are performed,” Pendley said in his written testimony. “Rather, it is rooted in how changes will better satisfy the needs of the American people.”
Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, said Grand Junction is the most affordable metropolitan area in Colorado, so moving the BLM to Grand Junction would help stimulate the city’s economic development.
Bernhardt required that any realignment must achieve the objectives of delegating more responsibility to the field, maximizing services to the American people and increasing the BLM’s presence closer to the resources it manages.
Pendley said these objectives will be achieved through:
Maintaining the headquarters for core BLM functions in Washington.Relocating some headquarter positions from Washington to state offices in the West to optimize efficiency.Establishing the BLM Western Headquarters in Grand Junction.However, some lawmakers and experts disagreed with the decision to move the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, citing concerns with accessibility and air travel, as there is not a major airport in Grand Junction, which could make coordinating flights difficult.
Pendley said that establishing headquarters in a more accessible area like Denver, though, would undermine the objective of delegating power to state offices because he doesn’t “want someone in Denver going to see the (national) director when they really should be seeing the state director.”
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who represents Grand Junction in his district, also brought up the concern of accessibility during the hearing but said the frustration is “overtly the separation between Washington, D.C., and the West” and having decision-makers on the ground where a majority of public lands exist will minimize that separation.
Another concern was the lack of communication with the Native American tribes in the area when deciding about the relocation. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-Albuquerque, vice chairwoman of the committee, referenced Pendley’s past mocking of Native Americans when speaking about the concern.
“In 2009, at a Republican breakfast forum, you were quoted mocking American Indian religious practitioners that insisted that federal lands and private property be off limits because it was holy to them, using air quotes to punctuate ‘holy,’” Haaland said to Pendley during the hearing. “Do you believe this behavior is a good representation of the BLM?”
Pendley responded that at the time, he was a private attorney representing private clients, and as a representative of the BLM now, he believes that management needs to move West to work more closely with tribal leaders.
While Pendley said relations with tribal leaders is a focus, the Ute Indian Tribe in northeastern Utah disagreed, as their ancestral homelands include Grand Junction. Tony Small, elected member of the Ute Indian Tribe’s Business Committee and vice chairman of the Business Committee, spoke about the “unlawful” federal actions that limited the tribe’s freedom.
“The proposed relocation of BLM to Grand Junction, Colorado, without any tribal consultation or consideration of the impacts to the tribe and other large treaty tribes is another stain on this history of broken treaties, agreements and promises to Indian tribes,” Small said in his written testimony.
There was a failure to consult with tribes when making the decision to relocate, Small said, and the listening sessions that were held by the Bureau of Indian Affairs almost two years ago were inadequate, as there had not been a follow-up since.
President of the Public Lands Foundation Ed Shepard also brought up staff changes that would result from the relocation.
“Many of the people being directed to move have personal circumstances that give them no other option than to resign, retire or leave the agency,” Shepard said in his written testimony. “This drain of institutional expertise would have serious detrimental consequences for years to come for the management of the country’s public lands and minerals.”
Ninety-seven percent of BLM employees are located in the field, Shepard said, providing the necessary resources for managerial decisions and does not require the central headquarters to be on-site.
Gardner spoke on the Senate floor Monday in support of the relocation, saying it is a “bipartisan approach that has been embraced by leaders on both sides of the aisle.”
“Washington bureaucrats and Washington Democrats can oppose Colorado all they want, but I believe in Colorado,” Gardner said. “I believe in our ability to manage these public lands better than they’ve ever been managed before. ... And as a result, we will have a cleaner, better environment; more conservation opportunities; and a greater public lands economy as a result.”
Ayelet Sheffey is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.