In November 2017, less than a year after Donald Trump took office, Ryan Zinke proposed ejecting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency that oversees 250m acres of federal land, from its longtime headquarters in Washington DC.
The BLM’s key responsibilities include administering grazing permits for ranchers, mining, and oil and gas extraction permits; since the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, it has also had a mandate to oversee recreation and conservation on its lands.
Because 99% of the land overseen by the BLM is located in the American west, the secretary of the interior said, its headquarters should be closer to “the field”, and therefore more accessible to its constituents.
“Pretty much every community in the west that thought they might have the office space put forward a proposal,” says Jessica Rose Crowder, a former natural resources policy advisor for the Wyoming governor, Matt Mead.
This wasn’t the first time a proposal to move west had been put on the table. In 1941, the United States Grazing Service, precursor to the BLM, was moved to Salt Lake City; in the 1990s, the BLM moved all its wildfire and aviation staff to Boise, Idaho. But both times, the agency wound up back in Washington.
This time, the administration chose Grand Junction, Colorado, a city of 60,000 located at the western edge of the state. Only 27 high-level jobs will be located at the new headquarters; some 300 are being scattered among state and field offices throughout the west. A small number of jobs, mostly related to Freedom of Information Act requests and budget, will remain in Washington. The move is now under way; the agency’s Washington DC lease expires at the end of this month.
The announcement quickly generated controversy. Opponents see the move as an attempt to undermine the agency, especially its environmental mandate. They point out that 95% of BLM staff already work in the west, and that those responsible for the move – Zinke, the current interior secretary, David Bernhardt, and the acting BLM director, William Perry Pendley – all have anti-public lands track records. (Pendley, who has been serving unlawfully as BLM director, said as recently as 2016 that he thought public lands should be sold off.)
Congresswomen Jennifer Wexton and Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced legislation to block the move. And environmental organizations raised concerns that relocating to Grand Junction, a major natural gas development area, will bring the agency closer to the oil and gas industry: indeed, Chevron and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association both have offices in the same building as the new BLM headquarters. Some expect that the Biden administration will even reverse the move.
The issue of accessibility that supposedly animated the agency’s decision to move, however, got lost in the controversy. Ranchers, some of the constituents with whom the agency works most closely, are divided on the BLM’s move “to the field”. Some are enthusiastic about the possibility of a more approachable, and more western agency; other argue that it will make the agency too isolated.
Whether Grand Junction is more accessible to constituents, for instance, depends on where in the US west they are. Grand Junction is “darn hard to get to”, as one rancher put it. Four hours from Denver and five from Salt Lake City, the city has a small regional airport with service only to a handful of major US cities. On top of that I-70, the interstate that passes through Grand Junction and connects it to Denver, often closes in the winter because of snowstorms.
“You could have made a case for Denver – you can fly there from Bozeman, Montana or Rock Springs, Wyoming,” says Hillary Proctor, who works with her husband on a ranch in Saratoga, Wyoming. Proctor points out that the issue of isolation is not only about access, but also the agency doing its job. “If you moved all the natural resources agencies, they could talk to each other. But the BLM got stuck by itself in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard not to see the move as an effort to stifle the agency.”
Ranchers don’t tend to go all the way to Washington to meet solely with the BLM, either; when the agency was headquartered in the nation’s capital, ranchers who made the trip out east could take the opportunity to meet with senators and representatives, lobbyists and other land and resource management agencies. Issues that merit a trip to Washington – such as endangered species management or “split estates” (in which ranchers hold surface rights to their land but not the minerals below it, which may be federal and leased to resource development companies) – have many stakeholders.
“If we go to DC we can visit with many more people who are decision-makers. We can talk to people in the House and Senate. We can speak to committees and staffers. But if we go to Grand Junction, we can maybe talk to one or two BLM employees … my guess is we won’t be really effecting any change,” says Jeanie Alderson, a rancher in Birney, Montana.
Yet Tom Page, who holds a BLM permit for cattle grazing in Hailey county, Idaho, remains cautiously optimistic.
“Those BLM folks in their castles in DC are hard to meet and talk to,” he says. “I would much rather go to Grand Junction.” Page sees the move as a consequence of the general adriftness and low morale in the agency over the last four years.
“The lack of leadership over the last four years has trickled down to the state and field offices,” Page says, referring to what he says as increasingly high turnover rates among BLM officials in recent years. “We’ve had four range-cons [conservation specialists] in the last few years, and three field office managers.” Page argues that this attrition has hampered the BLM’s ability to effectively serve its constituents. “How do you write a complicated permit in that situation? That kind of turnover is hard for ranchers because they’re here their whole life.”
Though both he and Proctor expect that the BLM’s headquarters move will increase this attrition and loss of institutional knowledge, Page sees it as a short-term challenge. Over time, he believes ranchers will benefit from having the headquarters closer to the field. Proctor hopes he is right.
“I would love to be wrong, because I want to see good decisions for people and for conservation. I want public lands to thrive.”