The Rio Grande Gorge at the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Bloomberg Environment photo.

As published by Bloomberg Environment

Two former Bureau of Land Management directors say plans to move the agency’s headquarters to Colorado are an early step toward abolishing the entire agency and transferring millions of acres of federal land to the states.

“I think the endgame is to try to make it almost impossible to manage these public lands,” said former BLM Director Robert V. Abbey, who served in the Obama administration from 2009-2012. “It’s just another step that they are taking that will add credence to those advocates that say these lands should be managed by the states.”

The Interior Department said July 16 that it plans to move the headquarters of BLM, an Interior agency, out of Washington and transfer 222 positions from headquarters across offices in 11 Western states. The new headquarters will be staffed by 27 people, including the BLM director, in Grand Junction, Colo., about 250 miles west of Denver.

Joseph Balash, assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management, said in a July 16 letter to Congress that moving the BLM out of Washington would move officials closer to the land they manage and to the local governments affected by their decisions.

But Abbey, along with a former BLM director from the Obama administration and other former Interior officials, say the move will isolate the agency, and hobble it to the point of eventually convincing Congress that public land would be better overseen by another federal agency or by states themselves, which may be eager to develop the land and remove environmental protections.

The BLM manages about one-tenth of the land area of the U.S., mainly in the West, and is central to the Trump administration’s fossil-fuel-focused energy agenda. The agency is in charge of all federally owned onshore oil, gas, and coal in the country.

Property Rights Defender

Some politicians in the West have long opposed federal management of public land. Utah passed a law in 2012 demanding—thus far unsuccessfully—that Congress transfer more than 30 million acres of federal land to the state. Congress ignored the request.

The BLM this month hired a champion of the land transfer movement as its deputy director of policy and programs—William Perry Pendley, former president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is dedicated to defending property rights. He started work July 15, a day before Balash sent the letter to Congress announcing the details of BLM’s restructuring.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation, founded by former Interior Secretary James Watt, has long fought the BLM and other federal agencies over land use issues. Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton worked as an attorney for the foundation prior to serving in the George W. Bush administration.

Pendley has written that he opposes federal public lands protections, including national monuments, and wrote a column in the National Review in 2016 supporting the land transfer movement in Utah and advocating for the federal government to sell off BLM land.

BLM spokesman Derrick Henry confirmed when Pendley started in the job but declined to respond to questions about why he was chosen.

Chance to Meet State Governors

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) also praised BLM’s decision to move its headquarters in order to bring the agency closer to public lands under its management, and the people it serves.

“The problem with Washington is too many policymakers are far removed from the people they are there to serve,” he said in a July 15 statement.

Interior Press Secretary Molly Block said BLM’s realignment will allow its leadership in the West to be physically close to other career senior executives in other bureaus who are making decisions affecting the agency.

“We are not doing anything to change the legal basis of BLM’s role in land management, or the continued federal ownership of public lands administered out West by BLM,” Block said.

She said Western state governors will have more chances to meet in person with the BLM director in Grand Junction, and they’ll be more likely to be in the same time zone. BLM is currently operating without a director.

Grand Junction is at least four driving hours from Denver, the nearest state capital. The city’s airport offers nonstop flights to only two other state capitals—Phoenix and Salt Lake City. The shortest flight to Grand Junction from Sacramento, Calif., is about 90 minutes shorter than a nonstop flight from Sacramento to Washington.

Isolate and Dissolve?

Patrick Shea, who served as BLM director for part of the Clinton administration and is now a Salt Lake City lawyer, said the bureau is meant to serve all U.S. citizens, not just those from Western states. He said it was essential for the BLM director to be in Washington in order to engage with Congress and other Interior agencies and to advocate for the budget.

“They want to dissolve gradually the federal BLM agency and transfer the responsibility and, more importantly, the assets to states, which robs the rest of the country of an asset they’ve been paying for,” said Shea about the move.

David J. Hayes, a former deputy Interior secretary in the Obama administration, also said the headquarters move “threatens to devalue the mission and importance of the Bureau of Land Management.”

Scattering headquarters employees around the West will make it difficult for them to coordinate with each other, and with other Interior agencies that control land bordering BLM property, said Abbey, the Obama-era BLM director. BLM’s structure already requires many land management decisions to be made locally, Abbey said; More than 90% of the bureau’s staff is already based in the West.

Without staff in Washington ensuring that decisions keep the national interest in mind when it comes to public lands and minerals, the headquarters move would also make BLM more vulnerable to influence from local interests, especially from the fossil fuels industry, Abbey said.

‘Sagebrush Rebellion’

Those views are also shared by some former employees in BLM’s headquarters, who worry the new 27-employee Colorado office will be largely symbolic.

Kit Muller, a strategic planner for BLM in Washington until he retired in 2018, said Interior’s plans to scatter staff will make it “difficult for BLM to do anything systematic at a regional or national level except authorize oil and gas development.”

The planned structure and its philosophical underpinnings make it easy for the BLM to defer to local governments on decisions unrelated to oil, gas, and coal development, Muller said.

“They’ll say the governor and county commissioners should be making these decisions,” Muller said. “If that’s your approach to centralize certain kinds of decisions and defer to state and local governments for other kinds of decisions, then what do you need a headquarters for?”

Interior’s inclination to diminish the federal government’s role in public lands is evident in its decision to hire Pendley, said George Stone, a director at large at the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM employee retirees group that “works to keep public lands in public hands,” according to its website.

Pendley is a “Sagebrush Rebellion, let’s-turn-land-over-to-the-states kind of guy,” Stone said, referring to the backlash against federal management of public lands. “This administration is not a fan of the BLM.”