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Kailey Broussard

Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – Bureau of Land Management employees in Washington have until this week to decide whether to accept a transfer out West – a move that some advocates and former bureau managers see as an attempt at “dismantling” the agency.

Notices went out Nov. 12 to 159 workers who will be affected by the bureau’s decision to move its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo. Those workers were given 30 days to decide whether to accept the transfer or find other work.

They are among as many as 296 who could ultimately get relocation notices, with as many as 39 of those jobs slated to be moved to state or regional offices in Arizona.

On Wednesday the House Committee on Natural Resources Chair Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Vice-Chair Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, are expected to hold a news conference about the move. Rep. Grijalva has called it a "forced transfer."

However supporters say the reorganization will move bureaucrats closer to the people.

“Ensuring employees live alongside the ranchers, miners and farmers who are most impacted by its decisions will increase transparency and accountability,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, and chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, in an emailed statement.

But critics say just shuffling jobs around the country is not the way to do that.

“Moving a few people to Grand Junction, Colo., and scattering staff all over the western United States makes absolutely no sense. The only objective could be to destroy the agency,” said Dean Bibles, who spent more than 40 years in various BLM positions – including some time as state director in Arizona.

The BLM move, first announced in July, stems from a 2017 executive order signed by President Donald Trump to reorganize and streamline federal agencies. Part of that order was to “move decision-making out of the Washington, D.C., area and to move it closer to where the decisions would actually have an impact,” according to a BLM page on the topic.

About 60 BLM employees who work directly with budgets or government relations are expected to remain in Washington.

BLM officials in Arizona said they are eager for more help. Amber Cargile, BLM deputy state director of communications, said state offices are not sure how the dozens of new agency employees will fit into operations in the state, but they are counting on the relocated staff to help manage the 12 million surface acres of BLM land in Arizona.

“It’s really important for us that we have a lot of interactions with our stakeholders. That’s the culture we have worked to foster in Arizona,” Cargile said.

The administration is not alone in the desire to move federal agencies out of Washington – a bill pending in the Senate calls for a study to identify sites in specific states with “economically distressed” regions. That bill, introduced in October, has yet to get a hearing.

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“Decisions about our public lands are best made by people with boots on the ground – not by nameless, faceless bureaucrats living in Washington, D.C.,” said Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, in an emailed statement. McSally is not a co-sponsor of the bill to move agencies.

Besides making workers more responsive to the public, backers say the move from high-rent Washington could cut expenses for taxpayers.

But Bibles and other former agency executives said that move will come at a different type of cost, upending land management practices and stunting the agency’s ability to serve the public. They sent a letter in September to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt warning of their concerns.

Bibles, a board member of the Public Lands Foundation, said the problem is that BLM has increasingly routed decisions through the national office instead of letting state offices make the decisions. That needs to change, he said, not the physical location of the workers.

“All we need to do is put the decision making back where it belongs,” he said.

Jeff Ruch, Pacific director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the relocation will hurt the agency’s efficiency as a whole.

“This is the BLM inflicting massive self-imposed wounds. The removal of scores of senior staff is a lobotomy on an already thinly staffed agency,” Ruch said.

Earlier this year Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the Bureau of Indian Affairs “will remain intact as we move forward with any plans to improve the Department of the Interior.” 

On Wednesday Reps. Grijalva  and  Haaland  will discuss the Trump administration’s forced move of hundreds of Bureau of Land Management employees to Grand Junction, Colo., and elsewhere across the West. Former BLM Director Bob Abbey and former BLM Deputy Director Henri Bisson will speak at the event to share their perspectives on the move’s potential implications and to encourage the administration to give impacted employees the support and consideration they have so far been denied.

House Democrats have repeatedly asked for evidence of the analysis or planning that BLM used in deciding to move its employees across the country, including through a pair of letters Grijalva sent DOI and BLM in November. 

“The Trump administration describes public servants as nothing more than lazy bureaucrats who deserve to be pushed around, have their lives upended and lectured about the need to get out of Washington,” Grijalva said. “The forced removal of BLM employees from their homes and places of work isn’t just unprofessional – it’s destructive and cruel. This level of mismanagement and mistreatment, and the stonewalling this Committee has faced in trying to get answers about it, is unacceptable, and BLM needs to cooperate fully and transparently with GAO’s investigation or explain its failure to do so.”

“This administration continues to choose to move forward with decisions, without meaningful tribal consultation, that harm the public lands that all our families enjoy,” Haaland said in a news release. “Their decision to reorganize the BLM will continue to negatively impact Tribes. Interior left Tribes in the dark by neglecting to tell tribal leaders how Interior was interpreting its very own consultation policies. This administration refuses to reconsider this decision, ignoring their responsibility to the future of our communities and, instead, prioritizing their partisan, ideological agendas.”

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Indian Country Today contributed to this story.