LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Many employees at the federal Bureau of Land Management have made it clear that they are less than thrilled by the Trump administration’s just-announced plan that they relocate from Washington for the untamed West.
To which the good folks of flyover country have responded: Just try it. You might like it here.
The Department of Interior announced this week plans to move BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, population 64,000, and scatter about 300 inside-the-Beltway positions across the interior West by 2020, putting the agency’s staff closer to the federal lands that they manage.
The relocation, in the works for years, was greeted with grumbling from some Democrats, not to mention staffers facing the culture shock of leaving the red-hot center of American political power, with its free, world-class museums, pro sports teams and multiple ethnic dining options, for the 14th largest town in Colorado, also known as the “gateway to Utah.”
“The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.
As far as Grand Junction denizens are concerned, the BLM staffers who wind up on the Western Slope are the lucky ones. They just don’t realize it yet.
“I think that to know us is to love us, and they just have to get to know us better,” said Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese.
She and other Grand Junction boosters pointed out the obvious advantages of living a stone’s throw from Colorado National Monument: cheaper housing, safe neighborhoods, good schools and unbelievably quick commutes.
“Here in Grand Junction, we get a little perturbed if we have to sit through two stoplights,” said Diane Schwenke, CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think this will not just meet expectations but far exceed expectations in terms of the quality of life.”
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who grew up about 60 miles from Grand Junction in Rifle, announced this week that the BLM would relocate to the West, moving most staff to 12 Western states, a shake-up aimed at “serving the American people more efficiently while also advancing the [BLM]’s multiple-use mission.”
About half of the BLM’s senior leadership is now located in Washington, even though the vast majority of the 10,000 staffers are located in the West. In addition, 99% of the 388,000 square miles managed by the agency lies west of the Mississippi River.
Sen. Cory Gardner, the Colorado Republican who spearheaded the drive to move the main office to Grand Junction, said he was thrilled by the decision, saying it “transcends political parties and will generate a positive ripple effect through the state of Colorado.”
It’s also a potent selling point at the polls for Mr. Gardner, who is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican senators of the 2020 cycle.
Indeed, Colorado was the big winner: Grand Junction snagged the agency headquarters, which will bring 27 employees, including the director, and another 58 positions are being assigned to the BLM office in Lakewood, just outside Denver.
Utah, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico will each gain 30 to 40 employees, and only 60 will remain in Washington. But what move supporters see as an attempt to move government closer to the governed, Mr. Grijalva argues, is an invitation for abuse.
“Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s hometown just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability,” he said. “The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward.”
Say goodbye to rush hour
Meanwhile, Grand Junction civic leaders held a press conference this week to celebrate the news.
“We are really excited about this,” said Ms. Pugliese, noting that 72% of Mesa County consists of land owned and managed by the feds.
“What people don’t understand is that the federal government really controls our economy,” she said. “Having the people who are going to make those decisions about federal lands actually living here and seeing the effects on our economy, that’s really important to us.”
Opponents of the realignment predicted that shift will result in a loss of experienced staff. The Public Lands Foundation, most of whose 600 members are former BLM employees, predicted that “the morale of those employees would be significantly impacted” by leaving Washington.
“I’m very worried, we are very worried, that they’re going to lose a lot of people,” said PLF board member George Stone.
He cited the career and family disruption. “As is the case with any organization, you’ve got families, you’ve got dual-income families, you’ve got spouses with jobs, kids in schools. A lot’s up in the air,” Mr. Stone said.
That’s where Robin Brown comes in. The Grand Junction Economic Partnership executive director said her group had already reached out to the BLM about forming a relocation task force.
“What we’d really like to do is introduce the area to these employees that are moving here and really tell them about our community and what they can expect, why it’s so different from D.C.,” said Ms. Brown. “I think the biggest thing they’ll find is that it’s really affordable and there’s no traffic.”
The drawbacks? “They’re going to be missing out on the restaurant scene and the shopping. We don’t have as much of that,” she said.
The greater Grand Junction region has about 150,000 people, which Ms. Brown described as “the only metro area in western Colorado. I refer to us as sort of the western capital of the state.”
Hoping for more
Ironically, some in Grand Junction say the BLM announcement is a bit of a letdown, if only because there had been talk the agency would be relocating en masse, bringing 10 times the promised executive jobs.
“We’re stuck between feeling grateful that Grand Junction will be known as the BLM’s Western Headquarters and frustrated that such a distinction has been hollowed out to its barest impact …,” the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel said in an editorial this week. “It doesn’t help that much of the rest of the country thinks that this is a thinly veiled attempt to dismantle any conservation-oriented aspects of the agency in service to President Trump’s energy dominance agenda.”
But, the local paper noted, it’s a start.
“We may have hoped for more in terms of sheer numbers of employees relocating to the Grand Valley, but with the highest-ranking ones in our midst, the potential for growth is good,” the paper said. “If this is to be the apex of power of the BLM’s hierarchy, it will attract people both inside and outside of the federal government who may find it advantageous to be within the BLM’s orbit.”
There could be some political adjustments for BLM employees who are relocating.
Washington and its inner suburbs have become a liberal Democratic bastion. Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Grand Junction, is represented by Republican Rep. Scott Tipton and have voted for the Republican in the past five presidential elections, including a 52% to 40% win for Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Grand Junction is considered a Republican stronghold in the district, while Pueblo, the other major city in the district, leans Democratic.
Government employees who work for the BLM are also likely to be more interested in outdoor recreation opportunities than the average Beltway bureaucrat, Ms. Brown said, and that’s something Grand Junction offers in spades.
“If life has called you to work for the BLM, and you value and cherish public lands, and you really want to spend more time in them, we can do that in Grand Junction,” Ms. Brown said.
Ms. Schwenke said she sympathized with those forced to uproot their lives to keep their jobs, acknowledging that “it’s a change, and people are resistant to change, and there will be a change in culture.”
“But my suspicion is the reason that you are working for the Bureau of Land Management is that you are passionate about public lands, and you are going to be closer to them,” she said. “So you aren’t just going to be reading about them in reports. You’re going to be on weekends to pick up your mountain bike and go out and experience them for yourself.”