The Trump administration's decision to move most of the Bureau of Land Management's Washington-based workforce out West will upend the lives of hundreds of federal employees. But it may also boost the fortunes of politicians who helped bring those jobs home.
One lawmaker stands to gain ahead of a tough reelection effort: GOP senator Cory Gardner of Colorado.
With the Trump administration moving more than two dozen top BLM leaders to the city of Grand Junction, Colo., Gardner has scored a political victory. The blue-state Republican is widely seen as the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for reelection in the 2020 cycle. He is one of two incumbents, along with Susan Collins of Maine, running in states Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
“Today is a historic day for our nation’s public lands, western states, and the people of Colorado,” Gardner said in a news release Monday. “Relocating the Bureau of Land Management to the Western Slope of Colorado will bring the bureau’s decision-makers closer to the people they serve and the public lands they manage.”
For more than three years, starting during the Obama administration, Gardner has publicly lobbied the BLM's parent agency, the Interior Department, to move the agency's leaders closer to the 245 million surface acres of mostly Western land it manages. After President Trump took office, he introduced legislation aiming to spur the move and continued pressing Trump officials during hearings and in private for the relocation.
Gardner found a receptive audience in Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose childhood home is about 60 miles from Grand Junction in Rifle, Colo. The two Coloradans have known each other since their 20s, both having been mentored by the same Rifle native and former state legislator, Russell George.
Gardner's efforts appear to be paying off: A total of 85 BLM jobs will be moved to Colorado, which is more than any other state is getting in the reorganization.. Grand Junction, a city of about 62,000 on Colorado's rural Western Slope, will net 27 leadership jobs for what Joe Balash, Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals, told reporters Tuesday was "the new headquarters of BLM."
Another four states — Utah, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico — are getting 32 or more BLM jobs each.
After the official announcement, Gardner's reelection campaign quickly fired off a tweet touting the senator's role in bringing the jobs to Grand Junction:
🚨🚨🚨 The Bureau of Land Management is relocating their HQ to Grand Junction. This is great news for CO because now the decision-makers will be present in the communities their decisions impact. I'm proud to have played a leading role in this effort over the past three years. pic.twitter.com/kBzYo6QKxl— Cory Gardner (@CoryGardner) July 16, 2019
The Interior Department said it chose to send BLM leaders to Grand Junction due to its central location in the Western United States, as well as the ease of air travel there and its relatively low cost of living. Interior also wanted to make sure the headquarters did not eclipse any existing BLM offices.
"Ultimately, we decided on Grand Junction at least in part because we wanted the headquarters to stand alone, not necessarily overwhelm or overshadow one of our state headquarter locations," Balash said.
But critics of the plan worry the agency may have trouble attracting talented workers if it is moved away from decision-makers in Washington.
"BLM already tends toward insularity — this move will exacerbate that tendency," said David Hayes, who served as Interior's deputy secretary in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. "Relegating that leader to an office in a small city 2,000 miles away is not a recipe to attract such a leader. Nor to attract the more diverse workforce that the BLM needs to effectively operate in today's world."
Shortly after news outlets reported on BLM's decision on Monday, Gardner's Senate office confirmed the relocation in a news release touting the senator as the “chief architect” of the plan. When asked for details about the number of positions being relocated to each state, an Interior spokesperson referred a reporter to Gardner's website, which had published a letter written by Interior explaining the reorganization.
Gardner's announcement came as several top House Democrats said they were in the dark about the decision.
“They hadn't told us anything,” said Adam Sarvana, spokesman for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.).
Similarly, Betty McCollum of Minnesota, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing most Interior funding, said the decision was made without consulting Congress and that she only learned details in a phone call with Bernhardt on Tuesday morning.
“After my discussion with Secretary Bernhardt this morning, serious questions remain: What are the benefits to the Interior Department and to the American public? What problem will this move solve? Why is BLM singled out for this move? How much will the move cost?” McCollum said.
For political groups seeking to defeat Gardner in 2020, the move is more fodder linking Gardner to the Trump administration.
“He clearly, apparently, has been more included in the process of the relocation than anyone else,” said Jayson O'Neill, deputy director at liberal advocacy group Western Values Project, which has aired ads asking Gardner not to support Bernhardt's nomination for interior secretary.
Other Western Republicans, including Reps. Rob Bishop (Utah) and Scott R. Tipton (Colo.), praised the plan bringing BLM job to their districts. So too did Colorado's other senator who is also a 2020 candidate, Michael Bennet (D), who said in a statement the BLM decision was "a step in the right direction."
Last year, Bennet penned a letter with Gardner encourging Bernhardt's predecessor, Ryan Zinke, to visit and pick Grand Junction as a new headquarters. He also pressed Bernhardt about siting the headquarters in Grand Junction when he was nominated to be deputy secretary in 2017.
But Bennet suggested he wants to see a more fully fledged headquarters out West – one that has more than just 27 workers in it.
In his statement, Bennet added "more needs to be done to establish a true national headquarters in the West."
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
Correction: The original version of this story inaccurately said the Western Values Project, an advocacy group, aired television ads in opposition to Cory Gardner's reelection. Its ads instead asked Gardner to oppose David Bernhardt's nomination for interior secretary.
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