U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt continually stonewalled inquiries about the Bureau of Land Management’s controversial move to Grand Junction in multiple hearings earlier this week before the U.S. Congress.
Originally scheduled to address concerns with proposed budget cuts for the Department of the Interior for 2021, members of Congress used the hearing to prod Bernhardt on a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The report holds President Donald Trump’s administration accountable for not following best practices in moving the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, including its failure to involve employees and key stakeholders in its plans.
“I found the comments regarding the BLM move outlandish,” Bernhardt testified before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday. “The concept that we are doing something to tear it down is fundamentally flawed.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., has said the report demonstrates how the Trump administration attempted to weaken the agency.
Manipulation of the facts?In the move out West, the BLM has lost more than half of its Washington-based employees. Out of the 170 employees who received a relocation notice, 81 declined or left their positions, according to the report. The move also splits a team that reviews environmental impacts of major land decisions, and scatters it across various states.
The BLM hopes to complete the move by summer, meaning the dwindling staff in the nation’s capital will be reduced to 61 of the original 10,000 employees by then.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has long supported the BLM’s move out West, with the idea that it would allow the agency to work better. But because the Department of the Interior didn’t work with Congress to develop a “durable, bipartisan plan, and rushed through the process,” as Bennet wrote in an emailed statement to The Durango Herald, the BLM lost “many dedicated civil servants.”
“On top of that, the administration continues to trust William Perry Pendley to lead the BLM, despite his history of advocating for the widespread sale of public lands,” Bennet said.
Bernhardt said the Interior is receiving many applications from “high-quality folks” to fill empty positions in the West. The secretary also said that when he recently visited the field offices, the staff was “ecstatic that things are moving forward with this relocation,” and that the BLM office in Grand Junction will be fully operational by December.
But members of both the House and the Senate had trouble believing Bernhardt based on recent findings by the Government Accountability Office, as well as reports in The New York Times that revealed manipulation of science on climate change and conservation in the Department of the Interior.
BLM staff numbers released in the new report from the Government Accountability Office also differ from what Acting BLM Director Pendley stated in December – that two-thirds of BLM employees agreed to the move.
Bernhardt chalked up denial language on climate change in the reports to “back and forth between experts” on the facts.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said that while scientists may disagree on all the details of climate change, she doesn’t know of any experts who would say releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not bad for the environment.
“You can search it on YouTube,” Bernhardt said of the scientists who believe carbon dioxide release is not bad for the climate.
The real reason BLM moved to Grand JunctionRep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., pushed Bernhardt on the original decision-making that went into the BLM relocation to Grand Junction, presenting more examples of veiled and inaccurate statements provided by officials from the Department of the Interior in the past.
In July 2018, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash sent a letter saying the BLM could not renew the lease on its office building in Washington because the cost exceeded the limit of $50 per square foot for a government building.
One year later, another official testified before Congress that the department could not renew the lease on the building because of cost, which became the main argument in the decision to move the office West, with the support of Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. Gardner has said the move is important because it puts decision-makers closer to the lands they manage, and the people who are affected by their decisions.
But the General Services Administration, which handles logistics like rent prices for government buildings, sent a letter to Congress claiming the office space actually was available at the proper cost.
This saga, along with multiple reports of science manipulation at the Department of Interior, “undercuts the truthfulness of the department’s assertions,” and “the rest of the argument (to move the BLM headquarters to Colorado) comes into question,” McCollum said.
Bernhardt testified it was his understanding that the price of the lease was above the allowed threshold, but “at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to renew the lease.”
Members of Congress expressed concern they were not able to do their due diligence in checks and balances if they did not understand the original rationale for the move. Bernhardt refused to answer when he could provide them with that information, repeatedly answering “soon.”
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Brookings Institution, said the oversight process has been broken in Congress since former President Ronald Reagan’s administration, and the legislative branch has become more politicized. Members are more interested in their re-election prospects, not “what is best for the country and Congress as an institution,” Tenpas said.
However, Bernhardt’s lack of accountability to Congress is “emblematic of the Trump administration” and Trump’s attitude toward Congress, Tenpas said in a phone interview with the Herald. Congress’ job is to check presidential power, not to work with the president or improve the president’s popularity, Tenpas said.
Grijalva has threatened to subpoena the Department of Interior if the documents surrounding the original decision are not turned over to Congress, as members on both sides of the aisle are frustrated with the department’s non-answers to questions.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.