On November 12, 2019, more than 300 employees at the BLM’s headquarters in Washington D.C. received letters saying they had 30 days to decide whether to move to Grand Junction, Colorado, or other regional offices, or lose their jobs. For those electing to keep their jobs, they were given 90 days to move. Consequently, on its current trajectory, the BLM headquarters in D.C. will be liquidated, decentralized, and relocated by the end of March in 2020.
This move is part of a broader plan announced by the Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in July, under the auspices that the lion’s share of the nearly 250 million acres managed by the United States Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) are in the West. This plan has received political pushback from Democrats in the form of threats and proposed legislation limiting or reducing funding to frustrate or impede the relocation of BLM’s headquarters.
To those that do not interact with the BLM, the question of “who cares,” or more aptly “why should I care,” is fair.
To answer this question, it is important to understand the sheer scale of lands administered by the BLM. These are public lands owned by the federal government that are not otherwise set aside for a specific purpose, such as a National Park or Wildlife Refuge. The BLM manages and controls about 12% of the total landmass in the United States, or an area slightly less than the size of Texas. The quality and use of these lands varies widely, ranging from national monuments and conservation areas to recreation lands; from wild, open spaces to forests and mountains; from rangelands to Arctic tundra; from wetlands and river valleys, to desert landscapes, to areas with vast and abundant mineral resources. Summarily, these are public lands, valuable to the country owned by all of us.
However, this does not really do the volume of land justice, as the percentages are much higher in the “West.” For example, in Arizona the Federal Government administers nearly 40% of all lands within the state, in Nevada it is about 62%, in Colorado about 35%, but in Georgia, the BLM administers only about 5.5% of lands.
This discrepancy in administration accounts for Secretary Bernhardt’s reasoning to let the headquarters be closer to those most impacted by the agency. But, it is worth noting that Secretary Bernhardt’s relocation aspirations have “unintended consequences,” and implications beyond just transplanting high-level BLM officials from D.C. to Colorado Springs or other western offices.
Obviously, uprooting dedicated agency personnel and their families should be given appropriate weight and consideration. But, why should anyone not directly impacted by the move care? Having read several pieces touching on the issue, both left and right leaning, both in support and opposition of the move, the answer is not clear.
The articles opposed to the relocation focus on the “lack of a reason for the move,” saying it is “unprecedented,” and equate the same to a nefarious, ill-defined, plot to wreak havoc on the environment, vis-à-vis a blanket relaxation of regulation over public lands. The law is the law, and the Courts are untethered to the whims of political posturing and agency relocations. So an ill-defined “parade of horribles” is difficult to follow or buy into for anyone that actually interfaces with the BLM.
The articles supporting the re-location focus on the need to have regulators closer to the regulated land. Most estimates place about 97% of all BLM personnel near where the lands are administered and impacted, so relocation will not really change the regulators’ proximity to the regulated land in any meaningful sense.
So does it really matter? As a practitioner that works closely with the BLM, I believe it absolutely does, for a few simple reasons:
- Several of the relevant agency manuals and regulations reference the “Washington Office,” or “WO,” and specific roles within the same. Nobody has addressed what happens when those roles are dissolved and reborn, creating a “known unknown” of uncertainty. Whether you are an environmental crusader or a mining company looking to expand operations, your point of contact will be both unknown and unknowable for some undefined period.
- The BLM officials are subject-matter experts, and having them near political appointees and politicians helps ensure fair, full, and adequate decision making as to the use of public lands. Removing these subject-matter experts from Washington has a risk of diluting the quality of decision making where a political appointee at the Department of Interior would no longer have easy access to institutional knowledge and real-world subject-matter expertise. Well thought out decisions by the DOI are important, as they reduce court intervention and thus improve efficiency in the overall resource management of public lands.
- Any massive move, from office logistics to personnel securing new housing, will cause delays. People will not be as available. Resources, like hard copies of files and maps, will not be as readily accessible. There is simply no way to have a quick and forced re-location without having unintended delays. Those delays will lead to delays in decision making, and the meeting of timing mandates for permitting decisions.
Currently, only two viable solutions exist: (1) delay the move, and spread it out over multiple years, with the relocation of personnel and discrete functions being relocated on an incremental basis to allow redundancy in Washington during the move; (2) scrap the move, or modify the move to only re-locate a specific sub-set of the BLM to Colorado Springs and allow the majority of the BLM Headquarters to remain in Washington. Either approach could avoid the problems outlined above. It remains to be seen how the 90-day move period will truly be implemented, and the true scope of unintended consequences, but in the interim, my sympathy goes out to those BLM officials forced to relocate or lose their jobs.
Samuel Lofland is a Member in Dickinson Wright’s Phoenix office. He can be reached at 602-285-5039 or SLofland@dickinsonwright.com.