This West Is OUR West

Interior to move one-fifth of Bureau of Land Management's D.C. staff out west as part of larger reorganization push

 

New headquarters will be in Grand Junction, Colo., according to a senator.

The Interior Department building in Washington features murals just outside the Bureau of Land Management offices done by artist John Steuart Curry — "The Oklahoma Land Rush," left, and "The Homestead and the Building of the Barbed Wire Fence." (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

 

By Juliet Eilperin and Lisa Rein | July 15, 2019

The Trump administration plans to relocate more than a fifth of the Bureau of Land Management’s D.C. workforce to west of the Rockies, part of its broader push to shift power away from Washington and shrink the size of the federal government.

The proposal to move nearly 80 employees from a key Interior Department agency comes as Trump officials are forcibly reassigning career officials and upending operations across the federal government. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue finalized plans this summer to move about 550 jobs at two of his department’s scientific agencies from the nation’s capital to the greater Kansas City region. The White House is trying to abolish the Office of Personnel Management, the government’s human resources agency, and has threatened to furlough as many as 150 employees if Congress blocks it.

 “The problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said in a statement supporting the land agency’s move. “Ninety-nine percent of the land the BLM manages is West of the Mississippi River, and so should be the BLM headquarters.”

But opponents argue that abrupt decisions to relocate or reassign federal workers have not been justified by sufficient analysis, can disrupt families’ lives and already have cost the government valuable expertise. BLM has about 360 employees in Washington, many of them supervisors, with 95 percent of its 9,260 employees working in the field.

“If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be in my playbook,” said Steve Ellis, who retired as BLM’s deputy director in 2016 after nearly four decades in government service. In a phone interview Monday, he said that transferring so many employees out of Washington could complicate the agency’s relationship with Capitol Hill, budget officials and other federal entities.

He noted that BLM dispatched all of its wildfire and aviation staff to Boise, Idaho, in the 1990s only to reestablish a wildland fire office in the District when lawmakers expected briefings after fires broke out in the West.

“It’s important for these agencies to have a meaningful footprint in D.C.,” Ellis said.

Margaret Weichert, Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, said in a statement that the move will make the government more efficient and “better serve the American people.”

In a shift long sought by conservatives, Trump’s government has shed thousands of employees overall since he took office, with gains at the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs but an exodus of civil servants at several other agencies, including Labor, Education, and Housing and Urban Development.

Jason A. Briefel, head of the Senior Executive Association that represents 6,000 top government leaders, said it is worth having a public conversation about how to reorganize different agencies. But he questioned whether the Trump administration has made a solid business case for some of these decisions.

“This isn’t just an Interior issue,” he said in an interview. “This is a government-wide issue.”

Interior’s plan for BLM, according to two people briefed on it who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, proposes dispersing about 225 staffers who report to headquarters to states including Colorado, Nevada and Utah over time, while reassigning another 75 to the bureau’s state offices. The rest of employees would remain in Washington to work on issues such as the bureau’s budget, regulations and Freedom of Information Act requests.

Some of the BLM top employees slated for a job transfer will move to Grand Junction, Colo., according to three federal officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not been formally announced. But many affected workers — who include some top officials, Senior Executive Service staffers and low-level managers — will move to other cities in the West.

Interior officials have been eyeing a possible move for BLM, which manages more than 10 percent of the nation’s land, for more than two years. A handful of Western states, such as Colorado and Utah, have sought to recruit the agency.

While administration officials defend the Agriculture Department and BLM moves as an effort to spread the federal workforce around, 85 percent of the 2.1 million federal employees already live outside the Washington area.

The idea of shifting the bureau west has received the support of some lawmakers, including the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop (Utah), as well as Gardner and Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.). In March 2018, the two senators from Colorado urged then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to look at Grand Junction, roughly 280 miles west of Denver.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt speaks before a Senate panel during his confirmation hearing in March. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

 

Bishop said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is “promoting a thoughtful, methodical approach that is a true win for the West. I’m pleased that a significant number of personnel will be coming to Utah and other Western states.”

But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) accused Bernhardt of being secretive about his plans. Bernhardt’s hometown of Rifle, Colo., is not far from Grand Junction.

“Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s hometown just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability,” Grijalva said. “The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here.”

Interior declined to comment on the relocation.

It remains unclear whether Congress would have to explicitly authorize the shift in personnel. The first stage of the move is expected to cost about $5 million, according to two government officials.

This is not the first time Interior has reassigned senior executives with little notice. In June 2017, political appointees reshuffled the assignments of more than three dozen career executives, with just 15 days’ notice of their job change. Interior’s Office of Inspector General investigated the matter but did not determine whether the moves were justified, citing the department’s incomplete records.

Denise Sheehan, who worked at Interior for 33 years before retiring last month from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview that the round of reassignments had a “chilling effect,” limiting what career officials are comfortable saying to political appointees.

“I don’t know if that was intended or not, but that was definitely the effect. It’s the most toxic thing in the senior executive corps I have ever seen,” she said.

In many cases, reassigned federal staffers have chosen to leave the government because they hail from two-career families or for other personal reasons. A majority of scientists and researchers at the USDA agencies slated to move to Kansas City are choosing not to move, and Perdue’s plan has been dogged by questions about its cost and the motivation behind it.

“When you move large numbers of employees from one part of the country to another, you’re going to lose a lot of institutional knowledge,” said Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union — with 530 members at BLM.

In other instances, the administration has shuttered parts of agencies altogether. The small Federal Labor Relations Authority, which adjudicates disputes between federal employees and their agencies, has closed regional offices in Dallas and Boston, citing declining workloads.

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. 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.

The agency probably will offer retirement and buyout packages to employees who decide not to move, which could equal as much as a year’s salary depending on their age and years of service.

Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.