WASHINGTON • A western Colorado economic leader tried to convince a congressional committee Tuesday that moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction would help resolve an “urban rural divide” over public land policies.
“The idea that [Bureau of Land Management] leadership shouldn’t be influenced by the communities that live, work and play on our public lands is misguided,” said Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.
She spoke during a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee, which includes four members from Colorado. All of them — two Republicans, two Democrats — support a Trump administration plan announced in July to move the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado.
However, they face stiff opposition from some BLM staff members and conservationists. They say the move would weaken the agency.
The BLM manages nearly 388,000 square miles of federal land, more than any other agency. In Colorado, 35.9% of the land is publicly owned, or nearly 24 million acres.
Brown referred to the more than 11,000 registered lobbyists in Washington that spent an estimated $3.46 billion last year to influence Congress as an example of how the federal government is sometimes out of touch with residents of western Colorado.
“So I don’t quite see why it’s okay to be influenced by more lobbyists than most of these communities have in total population with more money than all of our annual budgets combined, but not okay to be influenced by the communities who know, love, and protect our public lands best because they live, work, and play on those lands every single day — sometimes over multiple generations,” Brown said.
She also described advantages of Grand Junction, such as a lower cost of living compared with Washington and access to research and educational institutions.
“In other words, every single thing that the BLM does can be researched, studied and put into practice in Mesa County, Colorado,” Brown said.
Her enthusiasm for a BLM move to Grand Junction was not shared by the 30 retired BLM administrators who sent a letter last week to U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt asking him to reconsider the relocation.
“You’re setting up the BLM for failure,” the letter states.
The BLM retirees and their supporters say more than 95% of the agency’s roughly 10,000 employees already are dispersed in field offices, mostly in western states. They issue permits for mining as well as oil and gas drilling. They also enforce environmental regulations and manage recreational facilities.
Moving the more than 300 top administrators to Grand Junction would stick taxpayers with a huge travel budget when they must return to Washington to consult on policy decisions, the letter from the BLM’s retirees said. In Grand Junction, they also might not be included in high level discussions in Washington.
Edward W. Shepard, president of the nonprofit Public Lands Foundation, warned that moving the top staff members to Colorado meant they were likely to adopt local concerns but overlook a national perspective. He also said coordinating efforts would be harder for the agency’s administrators.
“They won’t be there when they’re spread out all over the place,” Shepard said.
Members of the Colorado delegation left no doubt about their support for a Grand Junction headquarters.
“It sounds like this would actually be an improvement in accountability and efficiency,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican.
He was speaking to William Perry Pendley, a longtime Colorado resident and the BLM’s acting director.
“We’re going to see better relationship with out stakeholders; we’re going to see a better understanding of western communities,” Pendley said.
He added that any problems that arise on public lands could be resolved more quickly through meetings with local residents.
Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, asked about the risk that BLM staff members in Washington would resign rather than move to Grand Junction. Pendley said the risk of resignations was too small to endanger the BLM’s operations.
Rep. Joe Neguse, a Lafayette Democrat, expressed skepticism about Pendley’s dedication to protecting public lands. Instead, the acting administrator seemed to agree with a Trump administration policy of turning more of them over to private development, Neguse said.
Neguse asked Pendley about a 2016 article he wrote saying the nation's founders intended for the federal government to sell all its land.
"I have never advocated the wholesale disposal or transfer of those lands," Pendley said. "I support the president and (Interior Secretary David) Bernhardt in their crystal-clear opposition to the wholesale disposal or transfer of public lands."
Neguse asked if the word "wholesale" was a loophole that would allow the administration to sell or transfer land. Pendley replied that he was referring to Congress' authority to mandate transfers.
"There may be case-specific circumstances where we do transfer or dispose, but Congress is the boss," Pendley said.
Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican, described support for a BLM headquarters move to Grand Junction as “bipartisan.” He also said public lands play a pivotal role for Colorado.
“It’s the most important factor for providing great jobs for people in our community,” Tipton said.
Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who was a chief advocate for the BLM move to Grand Junction, spoke on the Senate floor Monday, saying, “Why not make the decisions facing these millions of acres of public lands in the West, where the lands reside, instead of thousands of miles removed in Washington, D.C.?”