IIn November 2017, less than a year after Donald Trump took office, Ryan Zinke proposed expelling the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency that oversees 250 million acres of federal land, from its headquarters in Washington DC.
BLM’s key responsibilities include managing rancher grazing permits, oil and gas extraction permits; Since the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, it has also been mandated to oversee the recreation and conservation of its lands.
Because 99% of the land supervised by the BLM is located in the American West, the Secretary of the Interior justified, its headquarters should be closer to the “field” and, therefore, more accessible to its constituents.
“Virtually every community in the West that thought they might have the office space submitted a proposal,” says Jessica Rose Crowder, former natural resource policy adviser to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead.
This was not the first time a proposal to move West had been put on the table. In 1941, the United States Herding Service, the forerunner of the BLM, moved to Salt Lake City; In the 1990s, the BLM relocated its entire aviation and wildfire personnel to Boise, Idaho. But both times, the agency ended up in Washington.
This time, the administration chose Grand Junction, Colorado, a city of 60,000 located on the western edge of the state. Only 27 high-level jobs will be located at the new headquarters; about 300 are scattered between state and field offices throughout the West. A small number of jobs, primarily related to Freedom of Information Act requests and budget, will remain in Washington. The movement is already underway; 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 note that 95% of BLM staff already work in the west, and that those responsible for the move, Zinke, current secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt, and interim BLM director, William Perry Pendley, have a land track. anti-public. records. (Pendley, who has been illegally serving as a BLM director, said in 2016 that he thought Public Lands should be sold.)
Congresswomen Jennifer Wexton and Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced legislation to block the measure. And environmental organizations raised concerns that the relocation 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. They have offices in the same building as the new building. BLM headquarters. Some hope the Biden administration will even reverse the move.
The accessibility issue that allegedly animated the agency’s decision to move, however, was lost in controversy. Ranchers, some of the constituencies the agency works most closely with, are divided over BLM’s move “to the field.” Some are excited about the possibility of a more accessible and more western agency; others argue that it will isolate the agency too much.
Whether Grand Junction is more accessible to voters, for example, depends on where they are in the western US Grand Junction is “very hard to find,” as one rancher put it. Four hours from Denver and five from Salt Lake City, the city has a small regional airport serving only a handful of major cities in the United States. In addition to that I-70, the interstate that runs through Grand Junction and connects it to Denver often closes in winter due to snow storms.
“You could have defended 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 problem of isolation is not just about access, but also about the agency doing its job. “If I moved all the natural resource agencies, they could talk to each other. But the BLM got stuck in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard not to see the move as an effort to stifle the agency. “
Ranchers also tend not to go to Washington to meet solely with the BLM; When the agency was based in the nation’s capital, ranchers traveling east were able to seize the opportunity to meet with senators and representatives, lobbyists, and other land and resource management agencies. Issues that warrant a trip to Washington, such as the management of endangered species or “split holdings” (where ranchers have surface rights to their land but not the minerals underneath, which can be federal and leased to resource development companies), have many stakeholders.
“If we go to DC, we can visit a lot more decision makers. We can talk to people in the House and the Senate. We can talk to committees and staff. But if we go to Grand Junction, maybe we can talk to one or two BLM employees … I don’t think we will make any change, ”says Jeanie Alderson, a rancher from Birney, Montana.
Yet Tom Page, who holds a BLM cattle grazing permit in Hailey County, Idaho, remains cautiously optimistic.
“It’s hard to meet and talk to those BLM folks at their castles in DC,” he says. “I’d rather go to Grand Junction.” Page sees the move as a consequence of the general confusion and low morale at the agency over the past four years.
“The lack of leadership over the past four years has trickled down to state and field offices,” says Page, referring to what he says are rising turnover rates among BLM officials in recent years. “We have had four range cons [conservation specialists] in recent years, and three field office directors. “Page argues that this attrition has hampered BLM’s ability to serve its constituents effectively.” How do you write a complicated permit in that situation? That kind of rotation is difficult for the ranchers because they are here all their lives ”.
While both he and Proctor hope that the move to BLM headquarters will increase this burnout and loss of institutional knowledge, Page sees it as a short-term challenge. Over time, he believes ranchers will benefit from having their headquarters closer to the field. Proctor hopes he’s right.
“I would love to be wrong, because I want to see good decisions for people and for conservation. I want public lands to prosper. “
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