COVER STORY | Grand Junction shines as D.C. eyes new home for BLM

A view of the Book Cliffs near Grand Junction, an area administered by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management. (iStock)

Last month, after French President Emmanuel Macron addressed a joint meeting of Congress, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado quickly caught up to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on the House floor.

Gardner had Colorado business to discuss with his old friend, the former senator from Montana who now leads the U.S. Department of the Interior, which administers about a fifth of the nation’s land.

The Republican senator from Yuma, as he’s done since the Obama administration, pressed the case for Colorado becoming Washington’s West Wing by moving the headquarters of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management closer to the 245 million acres it manages in the West.

“We’re getting ready to move forward,” Gardner remembers Zinke telling him.

Already, most of BLM’s 8,900 permanent employees work outside of Washington, D.C., mostly in the West. Still, many western leaders see great significance in a westward HQ move.

And Gardner has his heart set on Grand Junction as the agency’s new home.

Such a move could bring up to 400 jobs, economic activity and a national identity for the city of 62,000 near the Utah border, in the heart of the American West, away from the starched collars and leather briefcases of the nation’s capital.

“He really wants to do this,” Gardner told Colorado Politics about his conversation with Zinke about moving BLM’s headquarters. “And he has a lot of support to do it in Colorado.”

A number of possible destinations for BLM have been discussed.

Last August the environmental website E&E News reported that Zinke had told a private meeting that Denver “will probably” become the host of three major Interior divisions with moves being made in the 2019 fiscal year, which begins next Oct. 1.

The report cited BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. E&E News got hold of notes from a meeting in Denver last July with senior staff of the U.S. Geological Survey, another Interior agency.

In August, Interior’s associate deputy secretary, James Cason, named BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service as candidates for a move west.

Zinke last November mentioned Salt Lake City and Denver to The Salt Lake Tribune as possible BLM destinations.

But while there’s been little or no public political inertia behind an agency move to Denver, Grand Junction is another story. There have been joint D.C.-Colorado meetings to address it. The Mesa County relocation has been chattered about in the statehouse, and it’s of keen interest to the state’s congressional delegation.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Denver, has been pushing the BLM deal with Gardner for almost a year. He, too, is convinced there’s nowhere better than Grand Junction.

“The values of Coloradans on the Western Slope align with the core mission of the BLM,” Bennet told Colorado Politics. “We must ensure this move is more than symbolic and provides the resources necessary to manage our public lands and improve agency decision-making.”


Go West

Down south, they call such opportunities high cotton. And Colorado is chest-deep in positioning to land this deal.

Of its 245 million acres nationwide, BLM administers 8.3 million acres in Colorado. Nationally, there’s another 181 million acres controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, also Interior agencies, and 193 million under the U.S. Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The federal government collectively owns more than 50 percent of western states, but only about 4 percent of the federal lands are east of Colorado.

Zinke wasn’t available to discuss it, but Department of Interior sp0keswoman Heather Swift said an official plan to move federal agencies hasn’t yet been put on paper,  and there’s no official short list of locations.

“But generally speaking, I will say the secretary and deputy secretary both see incredible opportunities to push more resources closer to the land and people under (Interior’s) management,” she said.

The deputy secretary she speaks of is David Bernhardt, who’s as Colorado as Red Rocks and craft beer.

Born and raised in Garfield County and a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado, Bernhardt got his start in Washington as chief of staff to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general. That was after he was an  lawyer for Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

“Both Zinke and Bernhardt are from Western towns and see value in having bureaus closer to the communities they manage,” Swift said.

Local passion

Groups in Grand Junction have been holding meetings and at least one video conference call with Bernhardt, the Rifle-raised decision-maker at Zinke’s right hand.

Christian Reece — executive director of Club 20, the Western Colorado coalition of government and business leaders — said Grand Junction could be a major hub for BLM, adding that she’s sure the local economic folks will be ready to pony up incentives.

She said Gardner, Bennet and U.S. Rep Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who represents Grand Junction in Congress, already are working with Club 20, the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Junction Economic Partnership on the matter.

“The entire community has embraced the idea of hosting the BLM HQ, and if selected, I believe we would all work together to ensure that the BLM feels our warm and welcoming western hospitality,” Reece said.

Reece thinks getting bureaucrats closer to their decisions can’t help but improve those decisions.

“When rule makers are able to see the on-the-ground impacts of their decisions, greater thought and accountability will naturally follow and will hopefully result in a process that is not a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic process,” she said.

What D.C. wants

Swift said that while the agency hasn’t started naming specific cities, they have set some criteria for new homes for BLM: A reasonable cost of living, proximity to public lands, good quality of life and good schools and no more than two flights away from D.C. — say, like, Grand Junction Regional Airport to Denver International Airport and east to Washington.

In March, Tipton had Zinke sitting before him in a House Natural Resources Committee hearing. He used the opportunity to try to get the Interior boss on the record about the issue.

Zinke obliged.

“My concern is making sure we’re going to a community that has a high quality of life, that’s affordable to the GS-5 to GS-7 (employees), great communities where we can attract millennials who will want to live there,” he told Tipton.

A GS-5 federal employee earns up to about $38,000 a year. A GS-7 tops out at about $46,000 annually.

“Colorado certainly fits that description,” Zinke said.


Leg up on Denver

Grand Junction compares favorably to Denver in Sperling’s Best Places assessments of cost of living, which is based on government and business data. While Grand Junction scores 100 on the Sperling’s rating for housing costs, Denver scores a 185.

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Grand Junction is $797, says Sperling’s. In Denver it’s $1,227, on top of the Front Range’s traffic congestion, higher crime rates and periodic swells in bad air quality.

A person making $39,000 a year in Grand Junction would need to make $50,000 to maintain the same lifestyle in the Denver, Sperling’s data suggested with the kind of information Washington decision-makers will likely give weight.

While Grand Junction indexed at 30 out of 100 on Sperling’s crime index, Denver was 49.3. The national average is 31.3.

Leg up on the West

Gardner speculated on how Colorado stacks up against other Western locations.

Montana, Zinke’s home state, is out of the way and could be viewed politically as home-cooking for the Interior secretary in an administration surely tiring of ethical questions by Cabinet members. Utah has a lot of Republican support, but most of the land the bureau would manage is far-flung from the Salt Lake City-Provo metro area, with few other competitive cities elsewhere in the state.

Nevada has Las Vegas, an urban area laden with a high cost of living and carnal distractions. Trump has had high-profile personal clashes with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican he criticized by name on the campaign trail in 2016.

Gardner has had his own clashes with Trump, even calling him a “buffoon” in 2016 and challenging his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, on marijuana enforcement policy. The senator, however, is a rising star in Washington political ranks and is seen as a valuable ally on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as in foreign-policy matters as member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

That leaves Colorado as an attractive and defensible option.

Already, the 623-acre Denver Federal Center campus in Lakewood houses offices for 28 federal agencies, including regional offices of several Interior divisions like BLM and the Geological Survey. And Interior is Colorado’s largest non-military federal employer, with nearly 7,000 workers in the state, Colorado Public Radio reports.

But it just makes sense to move the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, where the local communities and public lands co-exist, Gardner said.

Gardner and Tipton introduced legislation a year ago to authorize Interior to move the BLM’s headquarters to an unspecified location in a western state.

But Zinke says a lot of groundwork has to happen before the idea is presented for congressional approval, however.

“There will be hearings on the Hill, briefings of committees,” Zinke told the Washington Post in January. “We want the reorganization to be bipartisan. There will be a lot of my time spent on the Hill, talking to ranking members and chairmen.”

If Republicans don’t get on with things quickly, the November election could give Democrats a bigger say in the Trump administration’s proposal when the next Congress convenes.


Doubters in D.C.

Not everyone thinks this grand reorganization is a great idea. Count President Barack Obama’s interior secretary, Sally Jewell, among them. She thinks it an unrealistic boondoggle.

“I’m skeptical about the reorganization and its ability to serve the public more effectively,” she said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Interior has a broad and diverse mission.”

Jewell said it would be massively expensive to relocate federal agencies, which are located in Washington for a reason — to save cost on travel and to share real estate, leases and other economies of scale with other agencies.

“This would be from moving people, giving up leases before maturity, potential severance costs and substantial disruption to productivity,” Jewell said of the expenses.

And that’s before the first spade of dirt is turned on a new headquarters in Grand Junction or some other western city.

If Democrats take control of the Senate in November, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, the lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of the Interior, could use his majority powers to settle some things with how Zinke runs Interior.

And that bleeds over onto Grand Junction.

In budget meeting on May 10, Udall chided Zinke for “continued attacks on America’s public lands,” and asked how he planned to pull off such a grand maneuver as reorganizing agencies  and moving them to far-flung locations, while simultaneously seeking double-digit budget cuts for the agency. He cited an exodus of career agency leaders under Zinke.

“Mr. Secretary, you want our permission to reorganize the entire department, but it’s not even clear whether you have the right policies in place to manage your most senior career staff members,” he told Zinke. “The department has not provided sufficient detail on its actual plan for the reorganization, including how much it would cost, to Congress or the public.”

The original pitch man, Gardner, doesn’t think all Democrats feel that way. He thinks it wall pass Congress.

“It has bipartisan support,” he said, with Bennet on the same side, for example. “It’s not a controversial idea.”

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