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BLM bureaucrat William Perry Pendley. (Photo provided by the Natural Resources Committee)

Colorado will get more of the Bureau of Land Management’s Washington staff under the Trump administration’s proposed agency reorganization than any other Western state — but whether those employees will have decision-making authority is a hotly contested point.

The plan involves scattering almost 300 positions, some currently unfilled, across 11 Western states. Of the 222 people being moved from Washington, nearly 40% are coming to Colorado.

“Colorado is a weird situation, because it has a state office, the national operations center and the new [BLM] headquarters,” acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley, 74, said in an interview Friday with The Colorado Sun. Pendley was in Colorado for the annual Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Fort Collins, where he participated in a panel discussion on public-lands policy

The new headquarters in Grand Junction will have 27 people, including a newly appointed BLM director and the deputy director. The Trump administration has not nominated a full-time director for the agency, which oversees 250 million acres of public land.

Acting BLM Secretary William Perry Pendley. (Provided by Democratic staff of the Natural Resources Committee)

Pendley said he will serve until one is nominated and then return to his job as deputy director of policy and programs and remain in Washington. His temporary appointment last month was extended by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt until at least Jan. 3.

The remainder of the Colorado contingent will go to two Lakewood sites: the operations center — which provides geospatial services, information technology and financial backup — and to the office that handles Colorado issues.

The goal of the reorganization is to get decision-makers closer to the land they oversee and at the same time better inform people in the West on how Washington works, Pendley said.

“I know we are going to have cross-fertilization,” he said. “Washington types learning from those people on the ground and people on the ground being educated by our people who have had that Washington, D.C., experience and frankly there is nothing like it.”

Critics counter that at best it will make decision-making harder as relevant officials are strewn across the West and will keep key decision-making with a small group in the Trump administration. At worst, it will completely undermine the agency.

“If you connect the dots you can see it is an attempt to dismantle the agency,” Jim Ramey, director of the Wilderness Society’s Colorado office, said in an interview. “The fact that the most knowledgeable people in the bureau won’t be available to Congress raises serious questions.”

The wariness over the reorganization is fueled by Pendley himself, who has long been an advocate of turning public lands over to the states and private parties. He also has questioned climate change and the presence of the ozone hole, which posed an international threat in the 1990s, and made inflammatory remarks about immigrants. Before joining BLM, Pendley was for 30 years president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation in Lakewood.

“The bottom line is that was then and this is now,” Pendley said. “I was not a federal official at the time. I am now, and I have certain responsibilities. I know who my boss is. … I report to the secretary and the president of the United States. I am a Marine. I follow orders.”

He says he’s a Marine. But can he pass Senate muster?

The appointment of a full-time BLM director requires Senate confirmation, and critics question whether Pendley would pass muster. “He brings all these views to the office every day, and that is very troubling,” Ramey said.

Even taking the reorganization at face value, it is difficult to see how it will work, Nada Culver, an Audubon Society vice president, said in an interview. “If you have your oil and gas expert in Santa Fe, your cultural resource person in Montana, your conservation expert someplace else and decision-makers in Washington, how does that work?” she asked.

Pendley said “frankly we do most of our work by telephone or electronically anyway. The days of walking down the hall to speak to someone is a bygone era. It’s a digital world.”

The aim of the reorganization is to create “centers of excellence” on the ground where the biggest issues are found, Pendley said.

wild horses on a hill
A pair of wild horses graze on a hill at Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range on Aug. 28, 2018 in Grand Junction. The Bureau of Land Management is currently trapping wild horses to bring the herd to what it says is a manageable number. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“Our wild horse people out of Washington are going to Nevada. It is the epicenter of the wild horse program. Our renewable energy people are going to California,” where there are a number of wind, solar and geothermal projects, Pendley said. “Our oil and gas people are going down to the Permian Basin, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.”

“When anybody has an oil and gas problem they are going to be looking to those people in Santa Fe. Somebody has a wild horse issue in Wyoming they are going to be looking to those people in Reno,” he said.

The bureau’s top oil and gas people will be “more informed by having them in Santa Fe, dealing with people in Douglas, Wyoming, or the Bakken [in North Dakota] or elsewhere where there is oil and gas activity,” Pendley said. “You have people getting on-the-ground information. They are more informed than sitting in an office on M Street” in Washington, D.C.

The reorganization will also help local officials who will no longer have to troop to Washington to speak to key people or plead their case if they oppose a decision, Pendley said.

“BLM will have those decision-makers here in the West so they can go down the street or hop on the bus or drive a few hours and talk to the real dudes,” he said.

That may be difficult if those decision-makers are located in multiple offices, Culver said. “Listen to what they are saying and ask if it makes any sense,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

The plan, however, does have it’s supporters among the industries that use BLM resources. It doesn’t make sense for public land decision makers to be isolated in Washington, D.C., far away from BLM lands,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade group, said in an email. “Over 98% of BLM lands are located out West, and decisions made by BLM affect communities directly. Having BLM leaders out West means they have more accountability to the people directly impacted by their decisions.”

The question of what role states and communities play in a rejiggered BLM is another unknown.  There have already been conflicts and setbacks on that score in Colorado.

MORE: Trump’s “energy dominance” push changing plans for 3 million acres of Colorado land, local stewards say

In 2015, a compromise agreement was reached in Colorado for protecting the sage grouse on about 22 million acres in the West, including several million in Colorado. The deal made oil and gas development a priority in areas outside sensitive sage grouse habitat.

But in recent years the BLM has been offering oil and gas leases within sage grouse habitat, leading to protests from state officials. “They just threw out all the guidelines,” Ramey said.

Pendley said these decisions came before his tenure and he couldn’t speak to them, but he said he hoped the bureau wasn’t “back sliding” on the plans.

Pendley points to the quick decision he and Secretary of Interior Bernhardt made when Colorado Gov. Jared Polis sought the deferral of 10 parcels totaling 13,948 acres in northwest Colorado from the September oil and gas sale because of concerns over big game migration corridors and winter range. “When Governor Polis said he wanted a deferral on those tracts we moved on it,” Pendley said

Still, when the BLM’s resource management plan for the Uncompahgre Plateau was recently issued, it had a new “preferred alternative” plan, emphasizing energy development and not reflecting the input of local governments. That drew formal protests from county commissioners in Gunnison, Ouray and San Miguel counties.

“There was strong support in the North Fork Valley to take some of the high-value land for other uses than oil and gas, but the decision is to lease everything,” Ramey said “They are showing a disdain for local input when it doesn’t jibe with energy dominance and helping out the fossil fuel industry.”

Where are the decisions really being made?

And that raises another question about the BLM reorganization: Where are decisions really being made? All oil and gas leasing deferrals, like the one Polis sought, are made in Washington.

“We don’t want to put our state directors, who are career people, in a vise there where they are crosswise with someone they have to work with,” Pendley said. “We are the ones who should make the decisions and take the heat. We are willing to take the heat.”

But in testimony to a congressional committee in September, John Freemuth, the Cecil Andrus Professor of Public Lands at Boise State University, said: “The question is not about where agency leadership is located, but who makes decisions. Centralized decisions that contradict locally and regionally crafted solutions can admittedly be a problem.”

Culver said, “It doesn’t matter how many people they put in the West if the decisions are being made by Bernhardt and Pendley in Washington.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe