The exit of longtime career staffers from the agency responsible for managing more than 10 percent of the nation’s land shows the extent to which the Trump administration reshaped the federal government. The reorganization plan reestablished the bureau’s headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., moved 328 positions out of the main D.C. office of the Department of the Interior — BLM’s parent agency — and left 60 jobs in place.
A total of 287 BLM employees either retired or found other jobs, according to Interior communications director Melissa Schwartz, while 41 people moved to the new office in Colorado. Asked for comment on how the shift affected the bureau’s operations, Schwartz declined to comment.
But several experts, including former high-ranking Interior officials, said the shake-up has deprived the agency of needed expertise and disrupted its operations. The bureau oversees all oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which has emerged as a flash point in the early days of the Biden administration.
Joe Tague, a 42-year BLM employee who retired as chief of its division of forest, rangeland, riparian and plant conservation a year ago, said in a phone interview that at least half of his division’s staff left rather than move. He retired “in part” because of the reorganization.
“It wasn’t a pleasant thing, seeing everyone forced to move,” said Tague, who moved to Oregon.
Tague, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, said he was particularly worried about the agency’s diversity in the wake of the exodus because a disproportionately large number of Black employees had left. He added that some divisions, such as the one that oversees land-use plans, were hit particularly hard.
“I think it’s going to take a long time to regain what the Washington office does,” he said.
About 95 percent of the BLM’s more than 9,000 staffers were working outside of Washington before the relocation took place. The Trump administration argued that it made sense to place more of the agency’s workforce in the West because most of the areas it manages are there.
Congressional Republicans are lobbying to maintain the new headquarters in Grand Junction. The Trump administration shifted 76 positions out of headquarters altogether, so there are now a total of 480 headquarters jobs, 100 of which remain vacant.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said this week she was leading a campaign to keep the bureau in the city she represents.
“Moving the BLM Headquarters to Grand Junction was a game changer for the West and local communities. People from nearby states that would have never traveled to Washington D.C. for a meeting have already found their way to Grand Junction including sheriffs, ranchers, and county commissioners,” Boebert said in a statement. “What’s not to like?”
And the state’s two senators, Michael F. Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both Democrats, support the idea of having an expanded BLM headquarters in Colorado. The two wrote to Biden last week saying they support a “fully functioning” Colorado headquarters with hundreds of employees instead of the current setup.
“The BLM assigned only 41 senior staff positions to relocate to Grand Junction, positions that they had to rush to fill at the end of 2020,” the senators wrote. “While this is a reasonable start and is appreciated by the Western Slope, the job is far from finished.”
But Steve Ellis, the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in an interview that the BLM staffers working at Interior headquarters play a crucial role in coordinating policy.
“They’re going to have the national perspective and will be able to tie in the regional offices into the overall policy and know historically what the agency’s role is,” Ellis said. “And they also would be working with other agencies, both within the Interior Department and throughout the federal government.”