WASHINGTON - The Trump administration plans to relocate more than a fifth of the Bureau of Land Management’s D.C. workforce to west of the Rockies, part of its broader push to shift power away from Washington and shrink the size of the federal government.
The proposal to move nearly 80 employees from a key Interior Department agency - the majority of top managers - comes as Trump officials are forcibly reassigning career officials and upending operations across the federal government. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue finalized plans this summer to move about 550 jobs at two of his department's scientific agencies from the nation's capital to the greater Kansas City region. The White House is trying to abolish the Office of Personnel Management, the government's human resources agency, and has threatened to furlough as many as 150 employees if Congress blocks it.
"The problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve," Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a statement supporting the move. "Ninety-nine percent of the land the BLM manages is West of the Mississippi River, and so should be the BLM headquarters."
But opponents argue that abrupt decisions to relocate or reassign federal workers have not been justified by sufficient analysis, can disrupt families' lives and has already cost the government valuable expertise.
"If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be in my playbook," said Steve Ellis, who retired as BLM's deputy director in 2016 after nearly four decades in government service. In a phone interview Monday, he said that transferring so many employees out of Washington could complicate the agency's relationship with Capitol Hill, budget officials and other federal entities.
He noted that Interior dispatched all of its wildfire and aviation staff to Boise, Idaho, in the 1990s only to re-establish a wildland fire office in D.C. when lawmakers expected briefings after fires broke out in the West.
"It's important for these agencies to have a meaningful footprint in D.C.," Ellis said.
Margaret Weichert, Office of Management and Budge deputy director for management, said in a statement that the move will make the government more efficient and "better serve the American people."
In a shift long sought by conservatives, Trump's government has shed thousands of employees overall since he took office, with gains at the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs but an exodus of civil servants at several other agencies, including the Departments of Labor, Education, and Housing and Urban Development.
Jason Briefel, head of the Senior Executive Association, which represents 6,000 top government leaders, said it is worth having a public conversation about how to reorganize different agencies. But he questioned whether the Trump administration had made a solid business case for some of these decisions.
"This isn't just an Interior issue," he said in an interview. "This is a government-wide issue."
Many of the 77 BLM employees slated for a job transfer will move to Grand Junction, Colorado, according to two federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not been formally announced. But some of the affected workers - who include some top officials, Senior Executive Service staffers and low-level managers - will move to other cities in the West.
Interior officials have been eyeing a possible move for BLM, which manages more than 10 percent of the nation's land, for more than two years. A handful of Western states, such as Colorado and Utah, have sought to recruit the agency. The bureau has about 9,260 employees, of which roughly 350 work in Washington.
While administration officials defend the Agriculture Department and BLM moves as an effort to spread the federal workforce around, 85% of the 2.1 million federal employees already live outside the Washington area.
The Bureau of Land Management has just 350 employees in Washington, with 95% of its 9,260 employees working in the field.
The idea of shifting the bureau west has received the support of some lawmakers, including the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop of Utah, as well as Gardner and Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. In March 2018, the two senators from Colorado urged then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to look at the city lying roughly 280 miles west of Denver.
"We can think of no better permanent home for the BLM headquarters than Grand Junction," they wrote. "Moving the BLM closer to the land it manages and the people it serves ensures a bright future for the agency."
Bishop helped arrange a tour of Ogden, Utah, last year for one of the top officials overseeing the move: Susan Combs, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget
Bishop said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is "promoting a thoughtful, methodical approach."
But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., accused Interior Secretary David Bernhardt of not being more transparent about his plans. In a statement Monday, Grijalva noted that Bernhardt's hometown of Rifle, Colorado, is not far from Grand Junction.
"This administration has been handing over public lands to fossil fuel companies at record speed, and this move is part of that agenda. Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt's home town just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability," Grijalva said. "The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that's the administration's real goal here."
The move comes as Bernhardt has tapped William Perry Pendley, former president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, as a top policy adviser at BLM.
Interior declined to comment on the matter.
It remains unclear whether Congress, which has yet to be formally briefed on the proposed changes, would have to explicitly authorize the shift in personnel. The move is expected to cost at least $4 million, according to one federal official.
This is not the first time Interior has reassigned senior executives with little notice. In June 2017, political appointees reshuffled the assignments of more than three dozen career executives, with just 15 days' notice of their job change. Interior's Office of Inspector General investigated the matter but did not determine whether the moves were justified, citing the department's incomplete records.
Denise Sheehan, who worked at Interior for 33 years before retiring last month at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a phone interview Sunday that the round of reassignments had "a chilling effect."
"They said, 'Don't fight, don't take any complaints to the politicals because they could move us. I had one manager tell me, 'They could move you, they could move me,' " said Sheehan, who added that it limited what political appointees could learn from career officials. "I don't know if that was intended or not, but that was definitely the effect. It's the most toxic thing in the senior executive corps I have ever seen."
In many cases, reassigned federal staffers have chosen to leave the government, because they hail from two-career families or for other personal reasons. A majority of scientists and researchers at the USDA agencies slated to move to Kansas City are choosing not to move, and Perdue's plan has been dogged by questions about its cost and the motivation behind it.
"When you move large numbers of employees from one part of the country to another, you're going to lose a lot of institutional knowledge," said Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union - with 530 members at BLM.
In other instances, the administration has shuttered parts of agencies altogether. The small Federal Labor Relations Authority, which adjudicates disputes between federal employees and their agencies, has closed regional offices in Dallas and Boston, citing declining workloads.
While the administration has said that its efforts to reorganize the federal government are designed to make it more efficient and responsive, such moves are costly. Dismantling the Office of Personnel Budget, for example, would cost $50 million, according to the White House's proposed budget request.
Under federal law, BLM will have to pay all relocation and real estate costs for employees who choose to move west, including what it takes to sell their homes in the Washington region and purchase a new one. Employees and their families will be entitled to four months of hotel stays on the government's dime, federal personnel experts said, which could cost as much as $100,000 per employee.
The agency will probably offer retirement and buyout packages to employees who decide not to move, which could equal as much as a year's salary depending on their age and years of service.
Interior's total workforce shrank by a little more than 1 percent between January 2016 and September 2018, according to federal records. BLM's staffing grew 3 percent during that period, however.
Not all the administration's reorganization plans have gained traction, largely because they would have required congressional approval. A merger of the Education and Labor departments has yet to materialize, and neither has a plan to create a new agency housing safety-net programs such as food stamps and welfare.
The Washington Post’s Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.