Democrats tore into the chief of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at a hearing Tuesday, questioning the merits of a Department of Interior plan to decentralize the public land agency and send its top officials west.
BLM acting Director William Pendley testified before the House Natural Resources Committee, where he faced tough questions about the details of the move, how it will save taxpayers money, and whether the agency can be effective as its headquarters staff are broken apart and placed in different offices in different states.
“The Department of the Interior has done nothing to alleviate concerns that this move has been hastily planned, poorly researched, and questionably motivated,” said Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “There is no doubt this plan fits this administration’s pattern of trying to sell out our environment and natural resources.”
For Pendley, a controversial figure given his past support for selling off federal lands, it was his first appearance before lawmakers since being quietly appointed to lead the bureau through an order from the Interior secretary.
“Nothing beats being on the ground,” Pendley told lawmakers at the hearing, defending the relocation plan. “Nothing beats seeing something up close and personal.”
Interior announced in July that it would be moving nearly all of the BLM staff based in Washington, D.C., to new locations across the West, relocating roughly 300 employees and leaving just 61 in the nation’s capital.
Those relocated employees would then primarily take their orders from a new BLM headquarters to be located in Grand Junction, Colo.
Critics see it as a way to dismantle an agency that can at times stand in the way of energy developers and other business interests. They worry the plan will remove career employees from the corridors of power, leaving political appointees at the helm in D.C.
But Interior has argued the move will put employees closer to the public lands they manage, the majority of which lie in Western states.
Republicans on the committee were supportive of the plan.
“The facts are quite straightforward. The BLM manages close to 250 million acres, an astounding 99 percent of those lands are located west of the Mississippi River. Moving the decision makers closer to the lands that they manage undoubtedly improves agency efficiency, accountability and local engagement,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).
Pendley said the move would save the agency money on renting office space, employee pay, and even travel.
But many Democratic lawmakers found his responses lacking and his predictions unlikely. And at the heart of the issue is whether it makes sense to establish a new headquarters in a small city far away from D.C.
“Why Grand Junction? What is the justification for locating there?” asked Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.). “There’s no major airport there. Denver is 250 miles to the east, Salt Lake is 200 miles to the northwest. There’s no other federal agencies in Grand Junction. How can Grand Junction be more efficient than someplace else out west, be it Denver or Reno?”
Pendley said they didn’t want to place the headquarters in a town that already housed a BLM office.
“We want to follow the chain of command,” he said. “We don’t want someone going to see the director when they should be going to see the state director.”
Others asked how the agency would function with such a small presence in D.C., including managing meetings with other agencies that manage public lands, like the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as other agency heads and lawmakers.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said it would be tough for the agency to fully do its job “with virtually no one left in D.C.”
The Hill reported Monday that internal Interior documents from July 15 show that the agency plans to move its legislative affairs staff to Reno, Nev., along with other positions whose roles critics say rely on being present in D.C.
But when pressed by Grijalva on whether those plans had changed, Pendley said he would have to get back to the committee.
Lawmakers were also concerned that the relocation would drive away longtime staff. Norton pointed to a recent Department of Agriculture decision to move its two research agencies to the Kansas City area. Two-thirds of those employees said they would leave their job rather than uproot.
“There’s a pattern of this administration to move even vital parts of the administration out of the district,” said Norton.
Pendley offered various estimates of how many staff may leave rather than take a new assignment. At one point he said Interior estimated 25 percent of staff may leave the agency and then later said 45 people may choose to retire. Interior would not further explain the estimates.
“BLM leadership will notify employees about functions moving West on September 17. We do not want to speculate what employees will decide to do,” an Interior spokesman told The Hill.
Pendley said BLM would help those who do not want to take “more fulfilling jobs out west” by finding them roles elsewhere within Interior.
“For employees unable to make the move, we hope to find each a position in the Department of Interior family,” Pendley said.
Republicans on the committee expressed broad support for the move, echoing Interior’s messaging that it would help bring experts closer to the lands they manage.
“The problem we’re having here is the swamp wants to maintain centralized control over everything when what is best is politics that are driven locally,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.).
Republicans also relied on a Democrat to make their point — playing a clip of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) expressing support for the new federal office that would be opening in his state.
“It really puts them on the map to be the center of BLM,” Polis said of Grand Junction. “We’re bringing the manager of those lands a little close to where they are.”