Since its inception in 1946, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been responsible for sustaining the “health, diversity and productivity” of our nation’s public lands, of which there are 245 million acres today. The agency manages these lands for an array of uses including farming and ranching, outdoor recreation, and energy and mineral development, all of which are critical to our local economies and way of life here in the West.
The previous administration’s decision to relocate BLM headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction was a controversial one, to say the least. I’ve heard passionate arguments both for and against the move from respected leaders and stakeholders who I believe have the best of intentions for our public lands. Deciding how and from where to manage our lands and natural resources is not a simple issue.
But as the head of an organization that advocates for natural places, and a lifelong lover and user of public lands, I applaud Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s recently announced decision to return BLM headquarters to our nation’s capital while expanding BLM presence in the West.
When the relocation to Grand Junction began in 2019, hundreds of D.C.-based staff were reassigned to western cities, ostensibly to provide them with “a greater on-the-ground understanding” of the lands and programs managed by the agency. Local, state and national leaders on both sides of the political aisle argued that the new location would foster better relationships and partnerships in the West, where the vast majority of our public lands are located.
In theory, it might have seemed like a reasonable move. But in reality, the relocation decimated the agency’s invaluable institutional knowledge, which some former staffers say was exactly what the previous administration intended. Nearly nine out of 10 of the reassigned staffers chose to leave the agency rather than move West, according to new numbers released by the Biden administration. An analysis by the Government Accountability Office also found that BLM did not follow best practices for achieving effective reform.
It is misleading to suggest that if BLM is not headquartered in the West, then agency staff are somehow disconnected from and out of touch with the values and interests of public land users and stakeholders. Ninety-seven percent of agency employees were already stationed at field offices throughout the West. My organization, Western Leaders Network, consists of more than 450 local and tribal elected officials across the Interior West who work routinely with local and regional BLM offices on issues that affect our public lands, sacred and cultural sites, air quality, water resources, wildlife, livelihoods and local economies. But the BLM also needs DC-based senior staff to serve as liaisons between westerners and federal lawmakers, and to speak up for our western values.
The strength of this agency depends not only on having boots on the ground in the West, but also having a physical presence in Washington where decisions are made every day that affect western lands, air and water. We need that presence in our nation’s capital to coordinate with other public lands and natural resource agencies, have easy access to and testify before Congress, maintain strong working relationships with key federal leaders, and to fight for adequate funding and staffing in order to better steward America’s lands.
This is not “a partisan attack on rural communities,” as Congresswoman Lauren Boebert has said, but a move to better accommodate all communities. I commend the Interior Department and Secretary Haaland for this decision to move headquarters back to their rightful place in Washington, D.C., while committing to growing the bureau in Colorado and across the West. It is critical that we maintain a robust presence in both so that the agency can best serve public lands and all Americans.
Gwen Lachelt is a former county commissioner of La Plata County, Colorado, and the executive director of Western Leaders Network, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization of local and tribal elected officials across the Interior West who work to advance conservation initiatives and climate solutions.
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