You may have seen that Sen. Cory Gardner has recently embarked on engorgement of public land op-eds around Colorado.
It’s a remarkable pivot given his aversion to the widely popular CORE Act and legacy of waffling on LWCF. Gardner says that what’s good for public lands is also good for Colorado while highlighting his role in establishing the new national headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Grand Junction.
Sen. Gardner considers himself the “Chief Architect” of this accomplishment; citing the enhanced operational capacity for the agency and the positive economic effect the move will bring. With the announced completion date of the headquarters move looming next week (July 5), it’s worth taking another look at the agency’s relocation and the man Sen. Gardner can longer avoid associating with.
From the beginning, the move was off to a bad start. Sen. Gardner announced the relocation plans while career BLM employees were kept in the dark for months.
Meanwhile Interior Secretary David Bernhardt appointed William Perry Pendley to lead the agency’s reorganization. Pendley has spent decades advocating for the interests of extractive industries and campaigning against federal land protection.
He’s openly mocked Native American religious beliefs in relation to land management, a fervent climate change denier and has compared immigrants in the country illegally to cancer.
Pendley initiated the move in mid-November 2019 under the assumption that seasoned DC BLM staff would move across the country. That was followed by a Government Accountability Office report that found that Pendley and Bernhardt had failed to even involve or consider career staff in formulating the reorganization.
Over 70% of D.C. employees chose to leave the agency rather than move thousands of miles away, leading to a major loss of institutional knowledge and leadership.
Since then, acting Director Pendley has also failed to attract qualified new hires to replace vacant positions, including the majority of the agency’s top division directors.
Despite this, Bernhardt told Gardner and other senators that “the caliber of people and number of people applying for these positions is through the roof – phenomenal.”
Yet the new headquarters and career positions located here in Grand Junction remain functionally vacant; thinly occupied by regional staff temporarily reassigned to give the appearance of normalcy. With Gardner as the chief architect, the BLM has traded decades of public lands knowledge to renting an empty office space as a national headquarters.
During all this, Pendley has skirted the Senate confirmation process required for high-level executive branch appointments, but that is about to change as Bernhardt has finally asked President Donald Trump to nominate Pendley director.
If Sen. Gardner votes to confirm Pendley, that should say all you need to know about Gardner’s real feelings for your public lands.
The BLM’s mission calls for managing public lands for multiple uses and strives for balance. But under Pendley’s leadership, the agency appears to be losing sight of that mission.
If the Interior Department really wanted to help oil-patch workers, it would create jobs cleaning up abandoned wells or building renewable energy infrastructure. Leasing vast swaths of public land now at dirt-cheap rates will lock in low financial returns for our state and county governments.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it easy for the agency to sidestep public comment on projects in sensitive areas, notably Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. In addition, the Department of Interior issued guidance for BLM to provide pandemic relief for oil and gas operators.
This has effectively flooded BLM state offices with claim requests that reduce royalty payments across the board, including payments to local counties who need it most.
I understand why Sen. Gardner would rather gloss over the headquarters relocation subject and completely avoid Pendley. Neither stands up to any scrutiny.
Better to move on to something safe and broadly supported like permanently establishing the Land and Water Conservation Fund and addressing National Park Service maintenance backlogs.
Relocating the BLM headquarters has been nothing but an utter barn fire. Gardner, the chief architect of the BLM’s reorganization, deserves recognition for his part in jeopardizing the integrity of an entire agency for nothing more than a reckless, poorly executed political move.
The millions of taxpayer dollars spent on this relocation would have been better invested by hiring more seasonal and permanent employees in field offices, most of which are sorely understaffed, and located in smaller rural communities throughout the West. Millions of dollars in federal payroll would have been especially helpful for rural communities during this economic downturn.
With Gardner as their ally, the current administration values short-term expediency over gathering facts and seeking dialog with stakeholders that honestly represent communities, knowledge and opinions that blur the binary focus on “energy dominance.”
Most BLM employees already live adjacent to the lands they manage, it was like that before the headquarters relocation, it’s still like that today. If there’s a bright side in all of this, it’s that the dedicated and passionate employees of the BLM will continue to serve the public and public lands as best they can.
I applaud Sen. Gardner’s recent work with Sen. Michael Bennet and others providing legislation that permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund and allocates funds for park maintenance in some of my favorite places, like Dinosaur National Monument.
While Sen. Bennet has supported full funding of the program in every Congress since 2010, it’s nice to see Gardner has finally decided to act, even if it took an election year to do it.
Cody M. Perry is co-founder of Rig To Flip, a media company specializing in stories about the Colorado River Basin’s land, water and people that inspire stewardship, awareness and engagement. He lives in Grand Junction, Colorado.
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