3 big questions about the return of BLM headquarters to DC

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Home Secretary Deb Haaland’s announcement that the Bureau of Land Management headquarters will be relocated to Washington, DC, pleased many employees, although the lack of detail made other employees uncomfortable about the future of the office, according to interviews with a handful of professional officials.

Haaland said during an online announcement to BLM staff late Friday that it would first inform staff about the relocation of the national headquarters – which has been in Grand Junction, Colorado since August 2020 – to be transparent, though so many details about the plan remain unclear (E&E News PM, 17th of September).

“My main concern has always been your well-being and the restoration of the effectiveness of BLM operations,” Haaland told staff during the internal online session.

“I appreciate all of the conversations I have had with so many of you and your team,” she added. “The open dialogue helped us to plan a way forward that we would like to share with you today.”

But Haaland did not provide many details about the plan – which includes converting the current headquarters in Grand Junction to a western center – nor did she specify which officers or employees should be transferred to DC, or the schedule for it.

The lack of detail affects some BLM employees, who told E&E News that they had many questions about how the division of headquarters between Colorado and Washington will affect their work and the overall operations of the office.

One employee called the online session a “very 10,000 foot announcement” and “a political announcement for a political decision.”

“We are deaf to the lack of meaningful information,” said the employee.

Overall, however, the staff seem “incredibly happy and excited” about the plan to move headquarters back to Washington, a separate senior BLM official told E&E News on condition that they will not be identified because they are unauthorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“There is still a lot of work to do to make this decision a reality, but we are all looking forward to it,” said the official. “It really feels like a first step in rebuilding the office.”

Haaland admitted during their roughly six-minute prepared statement to employees on Friday that there are many unresolved problems.

“I know you will have many more questions about what these changes will mean for BLM and for you,” she said. “We will continue to announce organizational details in the coming weeks and months.”

In the meantime, they’ll keep pushing forward.

Nada Culver, the BLM’s assistant director of policies and programs, said during the online session that the office plans to set up an employee steering committee that will “represent all parts of the BLM.” This group advises the Home Office along the way and receives updates from the department to share with staff.

In addition, Culver said a separate leadership team will be set up to focus on the headquarters move and will work with the staff committee and external stakeholders “on next steps.”

“We know you are eager to hear more,” said Culver, who currently serves as BLM director.

Haaland added: “Of course there are many more steps to be taken.”

Here are three of the biggest questions that need to be answered in the months ahead.

What is really changing?

Haaland made it clear to employees on Friday that the national office is now in Washington.

Haaland derided the way the Trump administration handled the “destructive” move to Grand Junction, saying it “scattered staff and programs across the West” and the leadership of top politicians in Congress and the Home Office removed.

Therefore, she said, the move to Washington headquarters is “an important step forward in rebuilding high-level functions for the BLM and ensuring that leadership is centrally available for working with Native American tribes, with Congress, with other government leadership is and “its many stakeholders.”

Observers both inside the BLM and outside of the office say there are certain steps to be taken if Interior is to ensure that the return to Washington is not just a symbolic gesture.

Among them: Virtually all high-ranking officials – including the office’s two assistant directors, the assistant directors overseeing key BLM departments, and their assistant directors – are required to be in Washington, with only a few in Grand Junction.

All of these positions need to be moved into “the direct sphere of influence of the nation’s capital,” said Steve Ellis, a former deputy director of operations for the BLM during the Obama administration.

“Hopefully the pullback will at least include senior career positions,” said Ellis.

The deputy directors of the six directorates “should be in Washington” for the move to be effective, said Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM retiree group campaigning for the Washington headquarters to be relocated.

The role of the western hub in Grand Junction is less clear.

His role does not appear to be defined yet, based on what Haaland, Culver and Laura Daniel-Davis, the deputy assistant secretary of the interior for land and minerals management, told staff during Friday’s online session.

Haaland promised that “BLM’s presence in Grand Junction as the official western headquarters of the office will continue and grow. Important political functions and senior executives will continue to be based in the western headquarters.”

Shepard said the western hub offers BLM “a great opportunity to build a center for the many new programs such as protected areas, increased recreational use, renewable energy, tribal coordination and others.”

To Casey Hammond, the former Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Mineral Management during the Trump administration, it appears that the headquarters move is just a name change.

“If there is a small ‘core’ going back to DC and the Grand Junction team expands, it will be a huge win in our efforts to reposition resources, decision-making and accountability on the ground,” Hammond told E&E News.

“Our plan still had a small contingency in DC, so Minister Haaland with this decision has cemented our establishment of the western headquarters and the relocation of almost all positions,” he said.

Could the move in Washington trigger another employee exodus?

Haaland clearly wants to avoid repeating the effects of the Trump-era resettlement.

When 328 jobs were relocated from Washington last year, interior statistics showed 287 employees, or 87 percent of those newly assigned, left the office instead of moving.E&E News PM, January 28).

Only 41 employees in DC have actually moved, either to the new headquarters in Grand Junction or to other BLM state offices to the west.

Of these 41, some have said to Haaland and the BLM leadership that they would like to live in the West and not move again (Green wire, July 23).

“The move was actually a good thing for some people,” said a former DC employee during a meeting with Haaland this summer, who added that it would be “doubly difficult” for him to return to Washington after being in his had settled into a new home.

Whether some officials choose to leave the office likely depends on what Haaland meant when she told staff on Friday that only “core senior management positions” need to be stationed in Washington.

The distinction is important because Haaland assured the employees that no BLM employee would have to move “other than the above-mentioned core positions of the BLM management position”.

Shepard said he doesn’t think there will be “another mass exodus of employees like last year,” largely because Haaland is committed to working with employees to keep the disruption to a minimum.

Haaland told staff, “We will work with each of you to make sure all transitions go smoothly and that you all get the support you need.”

However, sources said that at least two senior career officials hired during the Trump administration have indicated that they do not want to move.

It could be others.

If so, Shepard noted that top positions “are filled by senior executive service staff and have knowingly accepted that they can be moved as needed”.

Will changes support or hinder efforts to fill vacancies at headquarters?

One of the biggest challenges for BLM is the number of vacancies at the office’s headquarters, many of which were caused by the Trump-era move to the west.

In fact, Haaland mentioned that filling the positions “caused” by “the destructive move” of BLM headquarters to Grand Junction remains the agency’s top priority.

The vacancies caused great concern among BLM employees, according to a staff meeting this summer. A member of staff told Culver at the online meeting that many departments are “severely understaffed” at the moment (Green wire, 23rd June).

But since it is not yet clear which positions will go where, it is difficult to see that the office is filling these positions quickly.

And that makes it harder to implement President Biden‘s agenda.

BLM has advertised numerous positions, from state directors in Alaska, New Mexico, and Wyoming to field managers, geologists, and even the position of assistant state director in Utah.

Of the 79 positions currently open on USAJobs.gov, only two – a grassland management specialist and an assistant field manager for resources – are slated to be stationed in Grand Junction. Conversely, only seven are listed in Washington, DC, the others in various locations in the west, where 97 percent of BLM employees were working before the Trump-era move.

Culver told employees on Friday that “filling the many open positions” is a top priority and that BLM will publish “more details about other positions and their locations within the organization” in the coming weeks.

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