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Front Range resident Andy Finley, in yellow, looks at a map of the North Fruita Desert Trail System on July 30, 2016. The trail system, 40 minutes from Grand Junction, is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Bureau of Land Management appears closer than ever to relocating its headquarters and some 300 jobs to the West from Washington, D.C. — closer to the nearly 250 million acres of land it manages.

Colorado’s congressional delegation has been busy pitching the Centennial State, and Grand Junction in particular, as the best new home address for the agency.

It’s easy to see why. With a potential economic boon of $44.2 million for the Western Slope, according to one estimate, the move could be a game changer as the region works to redefine itself as an outdoor industry hub in the long term.

There are also quick political points to be scored for landing such a large institution.

But Grand Junction is not alone in seeking out the headquarters and faces some tough competition, perhaps even from within Colorado. (Hint: Denver.)

How it all began: Cory Gardner pushes two administrations to relocate BLM

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees the BLM, quickly broached the idea as he was being confirmed in early 2017 and in the weeks and months after.

Grand Junction’s “got the space, they’ve got the buildings, they’ve got the quality of life,” U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner told The Colorado Sun during a recent interview. “They’ve got the cost-of-living factors. For the pay scale they (BLM employees) are making in Washington, D.C., that pay scale in Grand Junction — this is going to help them out a lot.”

Gardner, a Republican, has been speaking weekly about about the prospect of BLM’s headquarters landing in Colorado with Zinke and Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt either directly or through their staffs.

“He continues to say I’m going to be happy, I’m going to be happy,” Gardner said of a recent conversation with Zinke. “When I ask him ‘What?’ he’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t say. I really like Grand Junction though.’ We keep pushing him hard.”

Gardner says Bernhardt being a Western Slope native doesn’t hurt the area’s chances. Bernhardt comes from Rifle and worked for the politically powerful Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Zinke is from Montana, where he served as a congressman.

Landing the headquarters would be a big win for Gardner on the campaign trail, providing him with a talking point for his 2020 re-election bid.

But Gardner isn’t the only member of Congress from Colorado championing the issue.

Legislation: How the move would happen

Gardner and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, are sponsoring the Bureau of Land Management Headquarters Relocation Act that would authorize the agency to move west.

The state’s other Republican congressmen — Ken Buck, Mike Coffman and Doug Lamborn — all have joined the effort, as have Democrats Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, has since August 2017 been urging the Interior Department to move the BLM’s headquarters to Grand Junction.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has backed the idea, too, writing a letter to the Interior Department saying “Grand Junction is an ideal location for the BLM to conduct its operations.”

“The area is centrally located in the region and offers a high quality of life for residents,” Hickenlooper wrote to Bernhardt on June 21. “The presence of the BLM in Grand Junction would also yield substantial benefits for the local economy which is heavily driven by public lands.”

Tipton, like Gardner, would be another big political beneficiary of a BLM headquarters move to Grand Junction, which is in his district.

DeGette: Move could help bring feds closer to the land, but could weaken lobbying power

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, is taking a different tack than the rest of Colorado’s congressional delegation.  She thinks moving the BLM’s headquarters to the West would give locals a way to better protest decisions made by the agency, but cautioned about the impact on its lobbying power.

“I have concerns about a move diverting resources from BLM’s critical mission,” she said in a written statement to The Colorado Sun. “We also don’t want to do anything that would put BLM at a disadvantage when it comes to influencing policy and competing for funding against entrenched interests in Washington.”

Economic impact: $44.2 million

Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, said moving the BLM’s headquarters to the Western Slope city could have an impact of $44.2 million on the local economy.

That tally includes $13.7 million for construction of new office space for the headquarters. The rest, rolled up into $30.5 million in annual economic impact, includes the earnings of potential employees, their families’ incomes and the businesses they likely would patronize.

(GJEP warns the numbers could change depending on everything from actual employee numbers to the size of the office space.)

“There’s the impact of just the construction project, or the renovation project if they decided to do that, and then the impact of 300 new employees,” she said. “And then there’s just the brand awareness that it would bring to Grand Junction.”

Part of the pitch: Direct flights to D.C., cheap housing

Brown said her organization is hoping to sweeten the pot with a plan to subsidize a flight from Grand Junction to Washington, D.C. There’s even a webpage — titled “Welcome Home BLM” — aiming to draw the agency in.

“It plays right into everything we’re trying to do,” she said, highlighting the regional push to bolster the Western Slope’s energy-based economy with the booming outdoor industry sector. “Our economy has always been based on our public lands.”

About 75 percent of Mesa County — Grand Junction is the county seat — is public land.

Another potential draw? “Our average home price is (around) $220,000,” Brown said, noting that Zinke has said the ability of his employees to buy houses wherever the headquarters are moved is one of his priorities.

So what are the chances?

It’s hard to say exactly what Grand Junction’s chances are of landing the BLM’s headquarters as there are so many factors in play.

When asked to offer the odds, Gardner said “I hesitate to do that.”

First off, the Interior Department needs to work through a massive reorganization ordered by Zinke.

“I think that is the piece this whole thing hinges on,” Brown said. “I think if they get through that, the headquarters will come to Grand Junction.”

The city, however, will be in competition with other Western areas with strong outdoor communities. Boise and Salt Lake City are two names that have been tossed around, and those cities are working to land the headquarters, too.

Denver is also apparently in the mix, though it’s farther from BLM lands than the other contenders.

“The department is taking into account several factors,” Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said.

Swift said the primary factors include:

  • Affordable cost of living
  • Proximity to federal lands
  • One or two flight segments to Washington, D.C. (meaning one connection, max)
  • Good quality of life, including low crime, good schools, jobs in the community for employee spouses

“I think Grand Junction will be a beneficiary of the (broader Interior Department) realignment,” Gardner said. “What it means? I don’t know. But I feel confident they’re going to benefit from this.”

The Interior Department Senior Advisor Susan Combs told a congressional panel in July that she expects her agency to conduct an analysis in the next six to eight months to help choose a new location for the BLM headquarters, according to Rep. Tipton’s office.

This story first appeared in The Colorado Sun’s newsletter, The Sunriser. You can subscribe here:

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills...