Bureau of Land Management to D.C. Employees: Go West or Get Lost

The forced relocation of hundreds of staffers is seen by many as a precursor to the agency’s dissolution—and a sell-off of public lands to the states.

A lone rider on horseback on a vast plain under cloudy skies

The Pony Express National Historic Trail runs nearly 600 miles.


Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

I have never had the pleasure of visiting Grand Junction, Colorado, but I hear it’s quite beautiful. Its majestically rugged geography has made it a bucket-list destination for mountain bikers. Its pleasantly semiarid climate and generally mild winters make it a hospitable place for growing fruit, and in the past 20 years or so the city has even become the capital of a budding Colorado wine industry. Great skiing is to be had at Powderhorn, right next door. The summer calendar is filled with music and film festivals, and one annual food and beverage fest known as the Pork and Hops Challenge definitely piques my interest.

Still, I don’t think I’d like my boss telling me that I had to move there—uprooting myself, my wife, and my two daughters—or else risk losing my job. That’s the uncomfortable situation that dozens of high-level employees of the Bureau of Land Management now face. The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM, told lawmakers last week that it’s moving the agency’s headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, where a staff of 27 people will work. The BLM will transfer an additional 200 of its Washington-based positions to branch offices across 11 western states.

Those who support the move point out that the new location makes sense, given that 99 percent of the land managed by the bureau is west of the Mississippi River. But there are those who find the whole thing exceedingly fishy. Many longtime BLM staffers, the keepers of the agency’s institutional knowledge, simply won’t make the move. Their positions will either disappear or they’ll be replaced by fresh hires sympathetic to the ideological aims of the BLM’s new political appointees. As one former BLM deputy director told the Washington Post recently, “If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be in my playbook.”

But why would anyone want to dismantle the Bureau of Land Management? The Truman administration established the BLM back in 1946, with a mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” In practice, the agency manages fully one-eighth of our country’s total landmass: more than 247 million acres, including hundreds of wilderness areas, the extensive National Wild and Scenic Rivers system, and more than 6,000 miles of hiking and biking trails, many of which have been designated scenic and historic. If you’ve ever had a blissful outdoor experience in the Mojave Trails National Monument, the Valley of the Gods, or Red Rock Canyon, you have the BLM to thank.

A plateau rises above an open expanse of brush

The Valley of the Gods, in southeastern Utah, is sacred to Native American tribes and contains many important archaeological sites. 


Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

There’s much more to the BLM’s job, however, than keeping recreational sites beautiful and well maintained. The agency also manages more than 150 million acres of grazing land, leasing out much of it to sheep and cattle ranchers for a fee. And very significantly, it oversees energy extraction and mineral rights beneath 700 million U.S. acres—not just federal land, but also tracts that are state owned and privately held. The recipients of BLM leases include plenty of coal, oil, and gas companies; more than 60,000 wells on BLM-managed land currently account for 11 percent of our domestic natural gas supply and 5 percent of our oil supply.

It is this aspect of the BLM’s role that has many wondering if the Trump administration is trying to weaken the agency, as part of a larger plan to sever it completely from the federal government and hand over its land and its oversight responsibilities to individual states. Once that happens, there’s nothing stopping states that find themselves in the red—or that just want to court new business development—from selling off this newly acquired land to the highest bidder.

Last week, two of the agency’s former directors went on the record with their suspicions. In an interview with Bloomberg Environment, Robert Abbey, who headed the BLM from 2009 until 2012, said that he thinks “the endgame is to try to make it almost impossible to manage these public lands. 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.” His fellow ex-BLM director, Patrick Shea, echoed the sentiment, stating his belief that the agency’s current leadership wants “to dissolve gradually” the BLM and transfer its responsibilities—“and, more importantly, [its] assets”—to states.

Sounds like breathless hyperbole to you? Consider this, then: On July 15, one day before the BLM’s announcement, the agency made public that it had just hired William Perry Pendley, a firebrand conservative attorney best known for his vigorous defense of private-property rights, as its new deputy director of policy and programs—the BLM’s second-highest-ranking political position. Pendley is the author of books with titles like Warriors for the West: Fighting Bureaucrats, Radical Groups, and Liberal Judges on America’s Frontier and It Takes a Hero: The Grassroots Battle Against Environmental Oppression. He has also, in recent tweets, maligned the entire field of climatology as “junk science” and deemed the Endangered Species Act “a joke.”

A herd of cattle on grassy land with mountains in the background

Grazing lands in the Fort Ord National Monument, California. The BLM uses goats to ward off invasive plants and slow shrub encroachment. 


Este Stifel/Bureau of Land Management

And lest you wonder where he stands on the BLM’s historic role as the steward of federal lands, Pendley has also called—in direct, unequivocal language—for the United States to sell its western lands to the states, just as (in his words) “the Founding Fathers intended.” Yes, this is really the man that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt wants shaping future BLM policy: a proud climate denier and anti-environmentalist who believes that federal stewardship of land is not only unwise as a matter of public policy, but actually unconstitutional.

We can’t afford to treat America’s public lands like salable assets. And we need a fully staffed BLM—95 percent of whose 9,260 employees already work outside of Washington, by the way—to be headquartered in the nation’s capital, where top staffers can easily communicate with lawmakers and stay intimately connected to the intricate machinery of federal policymaking.

And—while I realize it may be too much to ask of this administration—could we maybe get a BLM deputy director of policy and programs who believes in climate change? Because guess what? A lot of his soon-to-be new neighbors in Grand Junction certainly do, and they’re worried about it.

Aurora borealis vsible in the night sky above a snowy field with trees

The Beaver Creek Wild and Scenic River region in Alaska is a popular destination for rafters and campers. The area is also home to thousands of species including eagles, peregrine falcons, and salmon. 


Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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