by Ed Shepard
The past year has been a year of change for our favorite agency, the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM is going through its biggest change since Reorganization Order No. 3; the establishment of BLM in 1946 from the General Land Office and the Grazing Service. Change can be good when it is well thought out and done for the right reasons. Unfortunately, the current change being implemented by BLM has not been well thought out and it is very questionable if it is being done for the right reasons.
The BLM is moving its headquarters out of the Nation’s Capital to Grand Junction, Colorado. Only about 60 employees would remain in Washington, D.C. to carry out the coordination work with the Interior Department, OMB, Congress, and other agencies and stakeholders that BLM works with on a day-to-day basis. The Department claims this will put decision making closer to the ground and the people affected by BLM decisions, and will improve service to public land users. But 97 percent of the employees are already located in the West in state, district, and field offices where the decisions should be made. Most of the BLM’s senior leadership will be moved to Grand Junction, including the Director (assuming a Director is nominated and confirmed by the Senate), the Deputy Director for Operations, and most of the Assistant Directors.
While the plan is for the leadership to be in Grand Junction, the remainder of the Washington Office will be dismantled. The Assistant Directors’ staffs will be spread across nearly a dozen states, far removed from the Assistant Directors and far removed from their counterparts in other divisions. They will still be doing Washington Office work in their new location, just without the advantage of being in the same location as their interdisciplinary colleagues or colleagues from other agencies. Does this sound like an efficient and effective way to manage our public lands? It doesn’t to me. All of this has been done with little to no involvement of the career staff that could have helped the Department meet goals of efficiency, if only asked. Effects of this ill-conceived plan are many and will be felt by the agency for many years to come.
The PLF has opposed this reorganization from the start. We started by asking that the Department consider the ramifications of BLM being the only land and resource management agency not located in the Washington, D.C. area. We asked that they consider the expertise of their own career people in any reorganization plan, as was done in the mid-2000s when the Management-for-Excellence (M4E) reorganization was successfully accomplished. The PLF was received politely, but largely ignored. The PLF also testified before the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee during the FY 2020 appropriations hearings, and many of you wrote letters to your members of Congress. We increased our efforts when the reorganization plan was released on July 16, 2019 and it was clear the headquarters relocation was really a dismantling of the agency. A group of PLF Board members travelled to Washington to meet with Congressional committee members and staff and expressed frustration over the lack of clarity and transparency in the proposal, asking Congress to look into the move and get questions answered before providing further funding.
The PLF and other organizations’ meetings with House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Grijalva led the Chairman to call for an oversight hearing on September 10. I testified before the Committee and asked that Congress stop the reorganization or at least predicate it on an independent analysis of its true costs, benefits, and consequences on the management of the public land, employees, and the organization by the Government Accountability Office. Chairman Grijalva has submitted several document requests to Secretary Bernhardt and asked GAO to initiate an investigation into the reorganization. The investigation is currently ongoing.
Several national media sources have been keenly interested in the reorganization and have interviewed PLF leadership who have explained the implications this move will have on public land management. Independent of the PLF efforts, 30 former Deputy Directors, Assistant Directors and State Directors wrote a letter to Secretary Bernhardt on September 5, with copies to Congress, expressing concerns over the reorganization and the potential consequences.
In early December another group of PLF Board members again made a trip to Washington to meet with Congressional members and staff. The group met with House and Senate members from both parties. In conjunction with this trip, Chairman Grijalva and Vice-chairwoman Haaland held a press conference with former Director Bob Abbey and former Deputy Director Henri Bisson to express concerns over the BLM reorganization plan.
In addition to the information sharing trips, PLF worked to get the story out beyond D.C. Former Directors Abbey and Caswell had a joint opinion piece published in Politico. The PLF ran a full-page ad in Politico, signed onto by several nonprofit groups that supported keeping a BLM presence in Washington. A copy of the full-page Politico ad is included as an insert in this edition of the Monitor. Op-eds written by former State Directors and Assistant Directors were also published in several major newspapers in Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
As you can see, we have been very busy in the past several months trying to keep the BLM headquarters intact. This involved a lot of work by many people from PLF and support from other conservation organizations, professional societies, and sister retiree organizations. We received a financial assistance grant that helped defray the costs of travel and the Politico ad.
Congress did not stop or slow the move as we had hoped. However, the FY 2020 Appropriations Act did not give BLM the added funding requested, keeping funding for the move at the FY 2019 level of $5.9 million. They also expressed their displeasure with the Department’s lack of transparency and added the following paragraph requiring monthly meetings with the Appropriations committees.
Bureau of Land Management, Reorganization. – The Department has not fulfilled its obligation to fully communicate the organizational and financial details of the reorganization and relocation of the Bureau’s Washington, DC headquarters. It has not provided Bureau employees, Congress, agency stakeholders or the general public with adequate information regarding the move. Furthermore, it has not explained how it will sustain its operations and remain an effective land management agency following the anticipated loss of much of its senior management and the expected attrition of its workforce caused by the reorganization. The Department is therefore directed to begin monthly briefings with the Committees on Appropriations on the status of the reorganization, including an initial briefing explaining the Bureau’s plan for ensuring continuity of the agency operations and addressing the immediate impacts of likely staff shortages caused by the reorganization.
The reorganization is underway. The office space has been leased in Grand Junction and the relocation of leadership has started. The acting Director announced he would be in Grand Junction starting January 2, 2020. Management directed reassignments have been initiated to move most Washington Office staff to the many State Offices identified in the July 16 reorganization memo. At this time, we don’t have firm numbers on how many employees will actually report to their new duty stations, take new jobs, or retire or resign. Many employees have already left the agency and indications are that most Washington Office employees will leave the Bureau.
All of this work could not be done without the support of PLF members and other retirees that contributed many hours of service to our organization. The PLF operates on a small budget and much of this work could not have been done without the generous donations made by dozens of PLF members and friends. Thank you!
The PLF will continue to monitor the reorganization and stay active on this issue. We ask that members remain vigilant and let us know of any issues that you notice arising from the reorganization.