Washington Post: BLM, whose headquarters was shifted out West, remains hobbled

/ In The News, News

Bachelor stallions photographed on the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area. Photo by Meg Frederick.

As published by The Washington Post

Air-quality specialist Theresa Alexander had spent nearly three decades working for the federal government in the nation’s capital when Trump appointees in the Bureau of Land Management forced her to choose: Move your life to Colorado or lose your job.

As she thought about abandoning her home in suburban Maryland that she shared with her son, his wife and her five grandchildren, she developed a pain in her gut so intense she worried she had cancer. So Alexander turned in her badge, cleaned out her desk and joined the exodus last year of Interior Department staffers leaving their jobs managing America’s public lands.

Among the 287 BLM headquarters employees who quit or retired — nearly 90 percent of those ordered to move out West — were wildlife biologists, foresters, fisheries experts and other scientists and specialists who would have played key roles in President Biden’s ambitious agenda to fight climate change and conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

Alexander worked on policies that assessed greenhouse gas emissions from oil and mining projects. She and her colleagues were also responsible for ensuring compliance with the Clean Air Act on public lands. Several members of her team quit, along with others who protected endangered species and wildlife habitat or set long-term policy.

“We were pawns in a political game,” she said.

Two years after President Donald Trump decided to move the bureau’s headquarters to Grand Junction, a small city in the mountains of Colorado with no direct flight links with D.C., Biden plans to bring it back. But the agency remains severely depleted, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former Interior Department employees, hobbling the Biden administration’s work.

As it plans a multiyear shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy on public lands, employees — several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation — say the exodus of senior leaders has drained the agency of experienced scientists and regulators. Replacements have struggled to get up to speed. Divisions that once coordinated across cubicles in the same D.C. office are now more isolated from one another after headquarters positions were scattered across about a dozen cities in the West.

Trump “destroyed the effectiveness of the agency,” said a BLM employee, one of the 41 former headquarters staffers who relocated to Western posts. “Everything’s broken down.”

The move decimated the ranks of the planning staff responsible for establishing multi-decade rules for how the country’s public lands can be used, including setting the balance between fossil fuel extraction and conservation. That division had more than 20 headquarters positions during Trump’s first year in office. Just four of those people remained after the move.

Dismantling the D.C. office also worsened diversity at an agency that already had a reputation as heavily White, male and populated by people from Western states, where most of the 245 million acres of public lands are located. The number of Black employees within the BLM’s headquarters dropped by more than half from the start of Trump’s term to the start of Biden’s, according to employment data obtained by The Washington Post.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the BLM, said in an interview that the headquarters move decentralized and weakened the bureau, putting oil, mining and ranching interests “in the front seat in terms of decision-making.”

“The consequence of that move was basically to stall the agency, to lose valuable employees, and overall in a department that lacks the diversity, to even lose more people that added to that diversity,” Grijalva said.

Some bureau employees describe the experience of recent years as more of an inconvenience for a small headquarters contingent, rather than something that derailed the work of an agency with some 10,000 employees across the country.

Wade Salverson, who has worked for the bureau for 16 years, moved with his family to Boise, Idaho, one of a handful of people in the forestry division who agreed to relocate. He says he has found it challenging to establish new work relationships amid the upheaval and misses face-to-face meetings with colleagues within the bureau and among partners at the U.S. Forest Service.

But he said he and his colleagues have become more comfortable communicating on Microsoft Teams to accomplish their goals. “People are adapting,” Salverson said. “The bureau, as an organization, is pretty robust.”

But others predict it will take years to repair the damage done by the headquarters move. Dozens of vacancies remain in a headquarters staff that is now about 30 percent smaller than when the Trump administration began its reorganization.

“It is so dysfunctional right now,” said Jenna Whitlock, who served as the bureau’s acting deputy director under President Barack Obama. “It was a traditional brain drain. Everybody who had experience left.”

So far, progress has lagged on the Biden administration’s major environmental priorities. New oil and gas leasing is resuming, after a federal judge ended Biden’s leasing pause, and the administration’s overhaul of federal drilling policy remains unfinished.

As of late September, the Biden administration had approved more than 2,800 permits for drilling on public land ― about 350 per month ― surpassing the Trump administration’s average of 300 per month between fiscal 2018 and 2020, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

The BLM, however, announced Friday that it would defer some oil lease sales on public lands to do more environmental analysis and evaluate the impact of greenhouse gases.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced last month that bureau headquarters would return to Washington and that the office in Grand Junction would serve as a Western headquarters. But the details of that plan still need to be worked out with lawmakers, and the extent and timing of the return remain unclear. The cost to taxpayers is part of ongoing discussions, said Rachael Taylor, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for policy management and budget.

“We take our financial stewardship responsibilities very seriously,” Taylor said. “By the same token, this is not just about cost savings, this is about making sure it’s a functional agency.”

For now, the uncertainty is an obstacle to recruiting talent and developing longer-term plans.

Late last month, the Senate confirmed Tracy Stone-Manning, the first time the bureau has had a confirmed director in more than four years.

With the BLM, Interior Department leaders are now confronting a particularly daunting version of a task that is familiar in many corners of the federal bureaucracy: rebuilding institutions that Trump spent four years breaking down.

“I underestimated,” said one senior Interior official, what happens when you “take an organization and just kind of shake it upside down.”

Janet Ady’s division was moving to Santa Fe, N.M., but nobody in the division wanted to go.

Ady led a group of about 10 employees responsible for educating Americans about their public lands. The bureau manages one-tenth of the country, and her division coordinated programs across the United States aimed at helping students and others appreciate and care for the outdoors.

Trump officials argued that the move placed federal employees closer to the land they managed and broadened the pool of potential job candidates. Former interior secretary David Bernhardt said in an interview that the department looked at every D.C. job and decided where in the nation was the best place for it to be based.

“The task that they were given was very simple: Put these people in the place that it will do the most good for the department and most closely align them with the problems that they have,” he added. “We wouldn’t have done it if I did not truly believe that it was better for the American people and better for BLM.”

Colorado politicians of both parties supported the reorganization, which left about 60 employees working in D.C. on issues such as regulatory affairs, legislative affairs, budget and policy, and administering the Freedom of Information Act.

“The Bureau of Land Management headquarters has been a tremendous success having it in Grand Junction,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said during Haaland’s visit in July. “We have saved quite a bit of money on the cost of long travel from Washington, D.C.”

Employees had heard rumors since shortly after Trump took office that jobs may be moved West, but the sweeping plan announced in mid-2019 caused upheaval in the headquarters.

“Most people were shocked, angry, perplexed,” said Gail Harvey, who retired after 15 years at the bureau and 41 years of federal service, rather than move West. “[They] didn’t understand what the purpose of the move was, and just upset they had to uproot and make that type of decision.”

In meetings, some employees loudly criticized their superiors; others silently wore black in protest. BLM employees gathered dozens of signatures to join the National Treasury Employees Union, but their managers said they had not reached a sufficient threshold.

At the same time, the sense of solidarity was undermined by an intense scramble for new employment outside the agency, a competition that pitted colleagues against one another. While management offered help with résumé writing and the job search, employees described an increasingly tense and paranoid atmosphere as more desks emptied out.

“Morale was so bad nobody wanted to do anything,” said Brianna Candelaria, who left the bureau last year after more than 25 years of federal service.

Members of Ady’s team had spent their careers advocating for the country’s wilderness areas. Candelaria, 54, was a ranger with the National Park Service for 17 years and spent another decade with the BLM as the national lead for interpretation, helping visitors engage with public lands “so they might want to conserve it and protect it for future generations,” she said.

She also had a mother who was dying of cancer and a 15-year-old daughter who had just been accepted to an arts high school. And she had no intention of upending her life for what she saw as a political ploy.

“I have never been so angry and infuriated and upset in my career than I was about how this whole thing got handled,” Candelaria said.

To encourage takers, the Trump administration offered $25,000 bonuses and paid moving expenses. Employees faced deadlines to move in the spring and summer of last year, as coronavirus cases were surging across the country.

No one on Ady’s team in D.C. accepted the government’s offer.

Their spouses had good jobs they couldn’t replicate out West, or their children were at critical points in their schooling. Some were caring for elderly parents. One, who later moved to Santa Fe for a different job in the division, had two young children and a husband who was an ICU nurse battling covid-19 cases all day.

Ady, who was turning 65 last year, decided to retire instead of relocating. She offered to stay on until her entire team found new jobs.

“They said, ‘Nope, you’ve got to leave,’” Ady recalled.

For her last six months, until her January 2020 retirement, Ady functioned as a career counselor, writing letters of recommendation and “trying to talk colleagues of mine in other agencies into hiring away my wonderful people.”

“It was pretty heartbreaking,” she said.

The new headquarters sits in a four-story brick-and-glass building next to a canal in Grand Junction, a town with a history of oil and gas, mining, and wine.

Over the past year, it has been mostly deserted, with generally fewer than 10 people in the office, including IT personnel wandering around in masks, according to employees who have spent time there.

An Interior spokesperson noted the department has a “liberal telework policy,” and employees were authorized to work from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some within the bureau cringed at the building choice. The agency whose job is to regulate drilling and mining on public lands shares a space with a Chevron corporate office, a state oil and gas association and an independent natural gas exploration company.

“The optics are terrible,” said one employee who spent time there.

Day-to-day operations of the bureau also have suffered.

The United States’ public lands accommodate many competing interests: coal mining in one area; the Burning Man festival in another. Managing these “multiple uses” is central to the bureau’s mission. When, for example, oil drilling is proposed on public lands, the agency assesses its impact on endangered species, air quality, wildlife and the cultural and historical resources in the area.

With the move, staffers who once talked through these problems in the D.C. office now are scattered across several states. Employees in the Division of Fish and Wildlife Conservation were split up, with wildlife biologists moving to Salt Lake City and fisheries specialists going to suburban Denver. A third group that closely collaborated with them, plant conservation, is in Boise.

There are now situations in which an employee from Salt Lake City reports to a supervisor in Denver, who reports to a supervisor in Grand Junction, who reports to a supervisor in D.C., when previously all four of them were in the nation’s capital.

New people hired into headquarters positions often came from state agencies or were promoted from jobs in the field and are unfamiliar with the ways of Washington. Employees say budget discussions that once might have taken hours take days or weeks as new managers struggle to navigate unfamiliar terrain.

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