Sorry to rain on Colorado’s latest bipartisan political parade, but moving the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction is a lousy idea.
Both Colorado senators have jumped aboard the moving van, mouthing the usual platitudes about bringing government closer to the people.
“The problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve,” Republican Sen. Cory Gardner observed in a press release. “Ninety-nine percent of the land the BLM manages is [w]est of the Mississippi River, and so should be the BLM headquarters. This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands, and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government.”
Gardner also claimed to be “the chief architect of the plan to move the BLM headquarters west.”
It’s great for Grand Junction, which will welcome a workforce of 500 people and a greatly enhanced national profile. But it may not be so great for the future of our public lands.
According to The Washington Post, “BLM has about 360 employees in Washington, many of them supervisors, with 95 percent of its 9,260 employees working in the field.”
Given that most of them are in the West, it might be administratively more efficient to have a western headquarters — but at what cost?
Implicit in Gardner’s statement is the notion that by moving west, senior employees of the BLM will be closer to “the people they are there to serve.”
Many of us in Colorado live near federally owned land, but proximity does not confer ownership. Along with President Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and every elected official in Washington, all U.S. citizens own an equal and undivided share in our public lands. Similarly, we all have the right (and duty!) to engage with our elected and appointed officials as conveniently as possible. That’s why we have city, county and state and national seats of government, with a goal of making government at all levels more accessible, accountable and efficient.
Washington’s present political dysfunction has little to do with the career public employees who work for any of the scores of agencies headquartered there. We created it by electing the angry, quarrelsome folks who have gummed up the works for most of this century.
No one likes D.C., so why not decentralize the national government? Send Agriculture to Kansas, Energy to Texas (a nice homecoming for Rick Perry!), Education to Massachusetts, Treasury to Denver (we already a have a U.S. Mint, so why not?) and Defense to Alaska (get those pesky generals out of our hair!).
That’d be an obvious recipe for disaster, so why the BLM deal? Gardner and Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet have obvious parochial reasons to support it, as do energy and mining interests who can easily move staff to the Western Slope. The Trump Administration will see a slight reduction in senior career BLM officials (deep state, anyone?) as some will refuse the transfer. Those who accept will be richly rewarded (again according to The Washington Post).
“Under federal law, BLM will have to pay all relocation and real estate costs for employees who choose to move west, including what it takes to sell their homes in the Washington region and purchase a new one,” the Post reported. “Employees and their families will be entitled to four months of hotel stays on the government’s dime, federal personnel experts said, which could cost as much as $100,000 per employee.”
So who will be the losers in this curious little deal? Not BLM’s career civil servants, who are protected by law from disruptive change. But an isolated, understaffed and disconnected BLM may be permanently crippled. It’ll likely be little more than an Interior branch office, stuck in the flyovers and shut out of the informal networks that sustain and underpin government. Absent D.C. clout, its budget, staffing and missions may shrink dramatically.
But who knows? Maybe a Western lands coalition will form, led by governors and senators from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Montana. Such a group would have the political clout to dictate BLM policy and budgets, and the Western common sense to make bipartisan deals to protect the larger public interest.
All that, and an even grander Grand Junction? Sounds too good to be true — but we can hope.