Earlier this month, the US Department of the Interior announced it would be moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, DC to Colorado.
That move will be part of a wider reorganization of the BLM, which will include reassigning leadership and support staff to offices across the West.
Officials say this change means the BLM will be able to manage public lands better and save money in the long term by moving operations from an expensive urban hub to Grand Junction, a city with a population of about 60,000.
“We have been department-wide looking for ways to move decision making down and out to the field and to the front lines. That’s part of this initiative overall,” said Joe Balash, assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior.
Balash told KNPR's State of Nevada that D.C. is an expensive place to live and an expensive place to lease real estate. He said moving the agency will help with those costs.
Besides the costs, he said it makes more sense to move the people making decisions about public lands closer to where those decisions are actually making an impact.
“I think for Americans who live in the West and have experienced the decision making that sometimes occurs far from home... can be frustrating,” he said.
He gave an example of the bureau's often controversial wild horse and burro program.
“Having our wild horse and burro program leadership out there in the field, more closely connected to the program staff that are actually having to implement it makes a lot more sense than having them all the way back in Washington, D.C,” he said.
But critics of the move, including some retired BLM officials, believe it’s an attempt by the Trump administration to dismantle the bureau. And they question whether moving the headquarters will actually expand the bureau’s footprint in the West, since 95 percent of its employees are already based near the lands they manage.
Other critics say the move will make it easier for extractive industries, like oil and gas drilling and mining, to gain access to public lands because bureau employees will be working in communities fueled by those industries.
Balash said the department as already pushed the environmental reviews to state directors and field levels, which has sped up the process and will provide "regulatory certainty."
“Being able to provide that we think is going to make public resources on federal lands more attractive and that will, we believe, lead to – ultimately – additional and increased production,” he said.
He said "marginal assets" on public lands will become more attractive to industries when the department gets the "regulatory recipe" right.
The DOI isn't the only department that started moving people out of D.C. The Department of Agriculture also moved its headquarters to Kansas City and lost two-thirds of its employees in the process.
Balash doesn't expect the same kind brain drain to happen at the BLM. He said they are working on timelines with those who do want to move and new positions within the department for those who don't want to move.
Ultimately, Balash believes the new restructuring will be successful when attitudes toward the department in some parts of the West changes.
“We’ll feel like we’ve done a good job when BLM is not a four-letter word in the West,” he said.
Joe Balash, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, Department of the Interior.
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