By Dan Elliott and Brady McCombs, The Associated Press
The Trump administration said Tuesday that it can save taxpayers millions of dollars, make better decisions and trim a “top heavy” office in Washington by moving the headquarters of the nation’s biggest land agency to Colorado and dispersing scores of jobs across 11 states in the U.S. West.
Interior Department officials said they hope to open the new Bureau of Land Management headquarters in the western Colorado town of Grand Junction and complete most of the job shifts by September 2020.
Moving the bureau, which is part of the Interior Department, out of Washington is a long-cherished goal of Western state politicians who cite the preponderance of public lands in their part of the country.
The bureau oversees nearly 388,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) of public land — 99% of it in 12 Western states — and balances competing demands from oil and gas drilling, mining, ranching, outdoor recreation and environmental protection.
Energy and ranching interests praised the move as an overdue step to give them better access to officials who have considerable power over their businesses. Environmental groups say it will make the bureau a less important part of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Joseph Balash, an assistant secretary of the Interior, said in a conference call with reporters that the moves could save at least $50 million and up to $100 million over 20 years because office space is usually cheaper in the West than in Washington, and cost-of-living differentials for federal employees are lower.
Congress allocated $5.6 million for the move this year, but future cost projections weren’t available.
Balash said nearly half the Bureau of Land Management’s senior executives are in Washington, even though the vast majority of its approximately 10,000 employees are in the West.
“The Washington, D.C.-based personnel are, for lack of a better term, top-heavy,” he said.
Moving senior executives into Western offices would allow them to mentor younger employees and share their knowledge, Balash said.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he suspected the true motive was to force out some employees not willing to transfer. The Interior Department has denied that.
In a letter to Congress, Balash said about 300 jobs would move to Western states, but fewer than 30 appeared headed to Grand Junction, a city of about 63,000 people 250 miles (400 kilometers) west of Denver. They would include the bureau director and other top officials.
The department said about 85 jobs would be shifted to Colorado, with most of them going to suburban Denver, where the federal government has a large campus with regional offices for several agencies.
Nevada was in line for nearly 50 jobs, Utah about 45, and Arizona and New Mexico about 40 each, the department said.
About 60 positions would stay in Washington to handle budget and policy questions and work with Congress.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement that shifting bureau leaders to the West would lead to better decisions, but neither he nor other officials described what decisions that would shift from Washington or how they would improve.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the oil industry trade group Western Energy Alliance, said more people who are affected by bureau decisions would be able to meet with agency leaders.
“The whole focus will be on the West, where it should be,” Sgamma said. “Right now, it’s easy to sit in D.C. and deny a rancher a grazing permit. It’s not so easy when he’s sitting across the table from you.”
Mike Noel, a rancher and former Utah state lawmaker, said it will be easier for him to drive to Grand Junction than fly to Washington to talk with bureau staff.
“Having the BLM out here and closer to the ground, we’re going to get better decisions,” Noel said. “There’s a different philosophy out here than there is in Washington, D.C.”
Jennifer Rokala of the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental group, called the move “nothing but a PR stunt” and said it could diminish the role of the Bureau of Land Management within the Interior Department.
Tracy Stone-Manning of the National Wildlife Federation said it was “expensive and unnecessary.”
The headquarters would be in a small city nestled against the Colorado River with views of the orange and brown rock cliffs that are part of nearby Colorado National Monument. Grand Junction has a small college and touts its wineries that sprung up from the fruit-growing region.
Critics have cited potential difficulties flying between Grand Junction and Washington. Grand Junction Regional Airport does not have a direct flight to Washington but has nonstop service to Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix and other cities.
The Bureau of Land Management traces its roots to the General Land Office, created in 1812 to distribute territory that the U.S. was acquiring through wars, treaties and purchases. In 1946, it merged with the U.S. Grazing Service to form the bureau.
Last year, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke raised the possibility of moving the bureau west as part of a larger reorganization of his department along new regional borders. Zinke said the changes would streamline the department and align its regions more with ecological zones than political borders.
Zinke stepped down in January amid ethics allegations, and Bernhardt has kept planning but with less fanfare.