BLM goes back to DC...

... but will keep a Western HQ in GJ

The contentious experiment of headquartering the Bureau of Land Management in the Western U.S. among the lands it manages has come to an end—sort of.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Friday announced her intention to rebuild and strengthen the agency “following years of transition and upheaval among the workforce.” She said she’ll begin by sending the BLM’s HQ back to D.C. But the Grand Junction office will not only remain open, but also “will grow and expand as the bureau’s official Western headquarters … {and} reinforce western perspectives in decision-making.”

In other words, the BLM both will go back to DC and remain in GJ, a compromise that should appease both sides1 of the sometimes bitter debate over where the agency should be based. I’ve miffed some of my loyal readers by taking a radical-centric approach, supporting the move in theory, but criticizing the way the Trump administration used it to dismantle the administrative state. Haaland’s solution, in my view, is the right one.

The idea of moving the headquarters West has circulated for years, but it was the Trump administration’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke—a resurrected Albert Bacon Fall—who first proposed it in earnest. He also wanted to shift the agency away from the state-office model to one that more or less followed watersheds, a la John Wesley Powell’s vision, a massive undertaking that would have gobbled resources the agency didn’t have.

Zinke stepped down under a cloud of scandal, but the HQ-relocation part of his vision survived and the Trump administration moved the national offices to Grand Junction, Colorado, in 2019. The move promised to bring some 300 government workers to the city of 63,000 people, fostering the transition from a fossil fuel economy to an amenities-based one. That garnered bipartisan support from a number of Western politicians.

Public lands advocates, however, were not so keen on the idea. The public lands belong to all Americans, not just the folks who live near them, they said. And the BLM needs leadership in Washington in order to liaison with Congress and other agencies.

Ultimately, only a handful of staffers made it to the new offices, which share a building with oil and gas companies, thus confirming critics’ worst fears: That the move (and the bungling way it was orchestrated) would scour the agency of senior, knowledgeable staff while also granting industry more access to those who remained. According to an Interior Department statement, of 328 positions moved out of D.C., only 41 relocated to the West and only three to Grand Junction. “This led to a significant loss of institutional memory and talent,” the statement says.

When Joe Biden was elected president, critics of the move saw an opportunity to rollback the botched relocation. But Colorado leaders from both sides of the aisle asked the administration to keep the headquarters in Grand Junction, albeit with reforms and a bigger staff. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, argued that a Western HQ would help leadership better understand the diversity of Western viewpoints regarding public land management, and would “lead to better policy outcomes for conservation and climate.”

On Friday, Polis praised Haaland’s compromise, saying in a statement: “The bottom line is that more senior BLM officials and decision-makers moving to the Grand Junction office is a good thing for Colorado and our country. The initial presence was far too small and now I’m finally hopeful that the office will grow.”

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There’s just one problem: The BLM still does not have a director to sit at the helm of the new-old D.C. headquarters. Biden nominated Tracy Stone-Manning for the post months ago, but the Senate has yet to hold a vote on her confirmation.

But the Senate did hold hearings, and they were a doozy, with the likes of Sens. John Barrasso and Steve Daines calling Stone-Manning a “radical” and going after her for alleged ties to “eco-terrorists” when she was in college in her early 20. She purportedly “collaborated” with a group of anti-logging activists who had spiked trees in a forest destined to be logged. If chainsaws or other logging equipment hit the spikes, it could wreak havoc on the machinery and seriously harm the loggers. Spikers spike not to hurt people or saws, however, but to keep the loggers out of the forest. So after spiking a few random trees they would warn the loggers about the spikes via post (this was pre-internet) in order to shut down the cutting.

As Todd Wilkinson points out in this wide-ranging and informative Mountain Journal interview, all Stone-Manning did was to retype the warning letter and place it in a mailbox. If anything, then, her actions actually prevented harm rather than caused it. Still, it provided juicy fodder for Republicans bent on obstructing the administration’s agenda in any way they can. And even though she has spent a good part of her career working for environmental organizations, she’s hardly a radical in this regard.

But she is an environmental activist and her most recent employer, the National Wildlife Federation, has gone after the BLM in court in the past. That prompted an astute Land Desk reader to ask: Is it really a good idea to put an activist in charge of an agency her organization had sued rather than a career land management bureaucrat? Was that really any different than choosing William Perry Pendley—who had spent his career suing the BLM and other federal land management agencies—for the same position? And, I quote: “… it is interesting that we'll have a BLM leader who will seek to undo much of what Pendley did, as Pendley sought to undo his predecessor's work. And with a potential change in administration every 4 years we don't end up with real lasting progress, just a lot of whipsawing back and forth.”

It’s an excellent point. Over the years the NWF has sued or been involved in litigation against the BLM, the Department of Interior, and other government agencies on numerous occasions. Back in 1997—two decades before Stone-Manning joined the organization—the NWF sued the BLM for issuing grazing permits in Southeastern Utah’s Comb Wash without a proper environmental review. The NWF won the case. More recently the organization joined a legal action to try to stop oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The NWF and friends lost.

So, yes, just as Pendley’s Mountain States Legal Foundation often battled the BLM, so too did the National Wildlife Federation, before and during Stone-Manning’s tenure there. But the cases are fundamentally different. Mountain States Legal, which nearly always worked on behalf of extractive industries or “small-government” ideologues, endeavored to weaken or even eliminate the agency in order to give its clients freer rein to enrich themselves from public lands. The NWF sued the BLM to force it to be stronger, and to live up to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act multiple use mandate requiring the agency to manage public lands in a way “that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.”

As for the whipsawing back and forth with each new administration, that seems to depend upon how influential the BLM Director is. Do they have the power to steer the organization in any significant way? Or are they high-level managers, implementing policies and regulations handed down from up high? The Director signs off on resource management plans, which guide the way huge swaths of land are administered, but the field offices and state offices actually develop the plans. The Director will oversee the HQ move back to D.C., but the decision to move was made by Haaland and, presumably, Biden.

My guess is that Stone-Manning will be confirmed in the next month or so, then she’ll fade out of the spotlight, put her nose to the grindstone, and begin the difficult task of rebuilding the agency that oversees some 250 million acres of America’s landscape.

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WHAT WE’RE READING: A Salt Lake Tribune story by Brian Maffly about former Utah State Rep. Mike Noel’s plan to build a $10-million-plus luxury golf course on private and state lands near his hometown of Kanab. Noel is a prominent member of the Sagebrush Rebel-Wise Use movement, and he’s known for saying, falsely, that the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument ruined the extractive economy of the region by displacing it with tourism. Now he says tourism is coming and he wants to be ahead of the curve with a remote golf course, in a desert, that would charge $100 per round. It’s only in the planning stages and may not happen, but if it does, guess who will be forking out the $10 million to build it? The taxpayers of Utah, that’s who, in the form of a loan from Utah’s Community Impact Board.

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1

With the predictable exception of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who condemned the decision and even had the audacity to credit former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for the increased number of jobs it would bring to Grand Junction.