The Bureau of Land Management is one week out from determining exactly which of its Washington, D.C., employees will be asked to relocate out to the agency’s new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado, or another BLM location, according to testimony given by acting BLM head William Perry Pendley before a Sept. 10 House Natural Resources Committee hearing.

Department of Interior leadership has stated that the move is designed to bring BLM leadership closer to the lands they are responsible for managing, 99 percent of which are to the west of the Mississippi river.

But opponents have worried that the move is nothing more than a PR stunt and would not only take BLM leadership away from the center of government decision making but also cause a significant number of expert employees to leave the agency rather than move to a new work location.

The move is also part of a larger Trump administration initiative to move Washington, D.C., federal offices to other parts of the country.

“There is no doubt that this plan fits this administration’s pattern of trying to sell out our environment and natural resources,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., adding that comments made by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney praising agency relocation as a means of getting rid of federal employees reveal the true motivations in relocating BLM headquarters.

“Taking BLM staff out of D.C. won’t help customer service, but it will make it harder for the agency to work with anyone other than oil and gas industry and interests. It will push many career staff to leave their roles, destroying institutional knowledge and hampering the Department’s ability to meet its mandates and standards.”

But according to Pendley, the move is designed to fill vacant positions at BLM that have been empty for a long time “simply because it is almost impossible to hire people in the Washington area.”

“Our perspective is that we do not want to lose a single employee,” he added.

The BLM currently has 323 positions in the Washington, D.C., office that are likely to be moved to other locations, with only 177 of those currently staffed. The agency has estimated that approximately 45 of those filled positions will chose to retire or find another job, rather than move.

Around 61 positions are expected to remain in Washington, D.C., though their offices will be moved into the larger Department of Interior office building.

BLM is already a geographically diverse agency, with approximately 97 percent of its employees located “in the field” rather than at the D.C. headquarters.

Edward Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, testified that though the motivation of getting more experts in the field and talking to concerned stakeholders is a good thing, the reorganization is more likely to result in the dismantling of the agency rather than improvement.

Critics have also pointed to Pendley’s past stances on public lands, as he once advocated for the federal government to sell off its public lands.

Pendley told committee members that his prior stance was in favor of clients he represented, and that his new client — the American people — would ensure that the agency would not undertake the wholesale disposal of public lands.

BLM is expected to complete its relocation plans by the end of 2020.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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