WASHINGTON • A congressional panel on Tuesday considered a proposal to move the headquarters of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other functions of the U.S. Department of the Interior to the West as part of a reorganization.
However, the Interior Department’s proposal met with skepticism from members of Congress who said it lacked enough detail for lawmakers to make decisions.
“It seems to be a plan that is full of details after the fact,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, during the House Natural Resources oversight and investigations subcommittee hearing.
He was referring to the Interior Department’s announcement last year that it was reorganizing to reduce bureaucracy before its strategy for reorganization was fully developed.
Under a preliminary plan, as many as three-quarters of the Interior Department’s roughly 70,000 employees would be located in western states.
Most of them are spread among agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Interior officials have been saying for some time that they want to move BLM's headquarters to one of several western states.
At Tuesday's hearing, Scott Cameron, an Interior Department assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, said the department hopes to decide on the location for a new bureau headquarters by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.
Several Colorado officials support the option of moving the lands agency's headquarters to the state, possibly to Grand Junction or Pueblo. Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico and Utah also are in the running for the BLM headquarters.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, both Colorado Republicans, last year introduced a bill in Congress that would require the federal government to relocate the BLM headquarters to one of 12 western states. The bill has not yet won approval.
Gardner issued a statement after Tuesday's hearing saying Interior's "confirmation" of a plan to move BLM to the West is "great news."
“I began the push to relocate the BLM West under the Obama Administration in 2016 so the decision-makers can live amongst the people and land their rules and regulations effect," he said. "[Interior] Secretary [David] Bernhardt and I have had many conversations about the relocation plan and I will continue to encourage the Department to choose Colorado as the BLM’s new home.”
Interior officials said they also are considering moving the headquarters of USGS — best known for monitoring earthquakes and publishing detailed topographical maps — to the Denver area.
Already, the 623-acre Denver Federal Center campus in Lakewood houses regional offices of several Interior divisions like Reclamation, BLM and the USGS. And Interior is Colorado’s largest non-military federal employer, with nearly 7,000 workers in the state.
Cameron told lawmakers Tuesday that about 40 BLM positions would be moved West this year. But lawmakers were not told how many other Interior employees might be added to their offices in Colorado or elsewhere, prompting allegations of mismanagement by members of Congress and other witnesses.
“Let’s face it, if you were a business you would be bankrupt years ago,” said Rep. Robert Bishop, a Utah Republican.
Cameron described the reorganization plan as a work in progress.
Employees are being surveyed now to determine whether they are willing to relocate, he said. A cost benefit analysis is being completed. The Interior Department plans to grant a human resources management contract on the reorganization this summer.
Moving more employees to western states would give them better familiarity with local issues, reduce their travel times and living expenses, he said.
Often the alternative is for mid-level managers to shift decisions back to the Interior Department’s headquarters in Washington, where the staff can be too far removed from local concerns to respond adequately, Cameron said.
One commonly mentioned example was an Obama administration plan to protect sage grouse in 10 western states. The plan recommended a single course of action that overlooked the ecology of sage grouse habitat in different locations.
Many state officials objected, saying their local strategies for protecting the species were better. They also said the federal plan would further endanger the sage grouse.
With greater authority given to a bigger network of regional directors under a reorganization, “We can make smarter decisions,” Cameron said.
As for USGS, Cameron said the mapping and science agency does not have money in this year's budget to move many employees. He noted the agency already has a big presence in the Denver area, including the National Earthquake Information Center.
He said the Interior Department would ask Congress for another $27.6 million next year to continue the reorganization. Lawmakers approved $17.5 million for this year.
The hearing Tuesday was one of two by House Natural Resources subcommittees discussing how to improve Interior Department operations. The other, by the subcommittee on energy and mineral resources, focused on clean energy alternatives.
One proposal would make wider use of public lands owned by the BLM to operate renewable energy plants, such as solar panels, wind generators and hydroelectric dams.
The Associated Press contributed.