The Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Junction office is housed in this office building on Horizon Drive. Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Colorado Public Radio photo)

The Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters will move back to Washington, D.C., from Grand Junction, the Biden administration announced Friday in a decision that comes despite objections from Colorado Republicans and Democrats, including the state’s two U.S. senators and its governor.

“The Bureau of Land Management is critical to the nation’s efforts to address the climate crisis, expand public access to our public lands and preserve our nation’s shared outdoor heritage. It is imperative that the bureau have the appropriate structure and resources to serve the American public,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees the BLM, said in a written statement. “There’s no doubt that the BLM should have a leadership presence in Washington, D.C.— like all the other land management agencies — to ensure that it has access to the policy-, budget-, and decision-making levers to best carry out its mission.”

Haaland said, however, that “the BLM’s robust presence in Colorado and across the West will continue to grow.”

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks on the response to western drought and wildfires on Thursday, July 22, 2021, at the Denver Water Department. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Grand Junction will serve as the BLM’s “official western headquarters,” according to the Interior Department, which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said is a silver lining. The Interior Department said the regional headquarters “will reinforce western perspectives in decision-making and have an important role to play in the bureau’s clean energy, outdoor recreation, conservation, and scientific missions, among other important work as a leadership center in the West.”

Gov. Jared Polis praised the news.

“The bottom line is that more senior BLM officials and decision-makers moving to the Grand Junction office is a good thing for Colorado and our country,” he said in a written statement, “The initial presence was far too small and now I’m finally hopeful that the office will grow.”

Haaland visited Colorado in July to tour the Grand Junction headquarters and meet with elected officials and agency staff. She didn’t give any indication then about her thinking on where the agency’s top brass should be located.

The Trump administration announced in July 2019 that the BLM’s headquarters would be moved to Grand Junction to be closer to the 245 million acres of public lands it oversees. The BLM also makes decisions about drilling on public lands and grazing rights, meaning its often at the center of public lands debates in the U.S.

Critics of the relocation said it was done to help then-U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who was up for reelection in 2020 but lost.

The Biden administration said the relocation “failed to deliver promised jobs across the West and drove hundreds of people out of the agency.”

“Of the 328 positions moved out of Washington, D.C., only 41 of the affected people relocated, with 3 moving to Grand Junction,” the Interior Department said in its news release Friday. “This led to a significant loss of institutional memory and talent. The headquarters transition will be conducted with a goal of minimizing further disruption to employees and their families.”

Outside of its core leadership, the BLM does not plan to require employees to relocate.

The federal Bureau of Land Management oversees 245 million acres of public lands, including in Coos Bay, Oregon. (Francis Eatherington, via Flickr)

The relocation was also backed by a number of Colorado Democrats, including Polis and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, though they said it could have been handled better.

Grand Junction boosters spent time and money trying to lure the agency, as well. The Grand Junction Economic Partnership was hoping for a $44.2 million boost to the local economy and even tried to secure a Grand Junction-to-Washington, D.C., flight to sweeten the deal.

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, who beat Gardner last year, has also been advocating for the Biden administration to keep the agency’s headquarters in Colorado.

Hickenlooper said earlier this month that he remained in “frequent conversation” with the Biden administration on the relocation question.

Hickenlooper expressed hope Friday that the BLM’s expanded presence in Grand Junction will be a good thing.

“A western BLM Headquarters in Colorado will help ensure we have a fully functioning agency that understands the West,” Hickenlooper said in a written statement. “We’ll keep working to secure jobs in Grand Junction, including senior leadership positions. To succeed, the western HQ must be a strong, permanent presence that engages the community and adds a Western perspective and value to the BLM’s mission.”

Bennet, while expressing disappointment, echoed Hickenlooper’s sentiment.

“I’ve spoken to DOI leadership about the importance of both staffing up the office to fill current vacancies and continuing to grow the BLM’s presence in Grand Junction —  in number of employees and significance,” he said in a written statement. “In the coming months, I will hold the administration accountable to ensure that the BLM Western Headquarters is permanent, fully staffed, and informed by the voices of the Rocky Mountain West — after the last administration failed to deliver on that promise.”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican whose district includes Grand Junction, said Friday that the decision to move the headquarters is “a partisan attack on rural communities.” She said Bennet and Hickenlooper should have done more to prevent the relocation.

But she, too, expressed optimism about the prospect of a western region headquarters being in Grand Junction.

“While I’m disappointed with today’s decision and the details are light, this could still ultimately be a win for Grand Junction and the West as a western headquarters will remain in Grand Junction, more jobs will move to Grand Junction, and all the jobs that moved out West won’t be moved back to D.C.,” Boebert said in a written statement. 

The Center for Western Priorities, a liberal-leaning environmental advocacy group that was always opposed to the Grand Junction headquarters, lauded the Biden administration’s move.

“Today’s announcement is the first step in fixing the extensive damage the Trump administration wreaked on the Bureau of Land Management,” said Jennifer Rokala, the group’s executive director. “It’s clear that moving the agency’s headquarters out of Washington, D.C. was meant to force out career employees and hollow out its leadership. The Bureau of Land Management oversees one-tenth of all lands in the United States, and the American people deserve an agency with a seat at the table when important decisions are being made in Washington.”

The Interior Department says Haaland met with BLM employees on Friday to announce her decision. The Interior Department plans to house the BLM’s director and other key leadership positions at its national headquarters.

The Colorado Sun —

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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 in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul