In July 2019, then-U.S. Senator Cory Gardner announced that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — a component of the Department of the Interior (DOI) — was relocating its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction. The Republican had been among those championing the move for years, arguing that since almost all of the nearly 250 million acres of public surface lands (and some 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights) managed by BLM were in the West, the move would put its “decision makers closer to the people they serve and the public lands they manage.”
The announcement was met with approval by Colorado’s other senator, Michael Bennet, and by Gov. Jared Polis — both Democrats — as well as by Republican Scott Tipton, then Colorado’s Third Congressional District representative. They welcomed the prospect of an enhanced BLM presence in Colorado and the opportunity to bring well-paying jobs that would boost the economy of a small city on the state’s western edge.
Opposition to the planned move was strong, mainly among environmental groups and Democratic members of Congress. Tracy Stone-Manning, of the National Wildlife Federation, called it “expensive and unnecessary.”
A letter to select senators from Edward Shepard of the Public Lands Foundation — an organization consisting largely of former BLM employees — was more pointed, stating the move would “functionally dismantle the BLM … [which] is already a western-based agency … with a structure already in place that is responsive to western constituents and stakeholders.” That sentiment about gutting the bureau was also shared by Democratic Representatives Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and his then-colleague Debra Haaland of New Mexico.
A major concern was that moving BLM headquarters to Grand Junction would result in the departure of many of its longtime staffers, as had been the case when the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters relocated to Kansas City in 2019; then, roughly half of its Washington employees did not make the move. The BLM (and other federal agencies) already had undergone significant losses of experienced veterans following the start of the Trump administration. It was speculated that replacement workers would be more amenable to the oil and gas industry.
Nonetheless, the relocation went ahead and was completed in August 2020. The building it occupied was shared by the regional office of the Chevron Corporation and other extraction-related entities. And, true to the predictions, it was revealed that of the 328 positions at the D.C. headquarters that were purportedly slated for relocation, only 41 people actually moved West — three to Grand Junction and the rest to other BLM offices in western states; the remainder either retired or found other jobs. (Note: A 2021 Government Accounting Office report stated that those 328 announced positions included 134 that were already vacant, 17 others already reallocated and one under administrative review at the time of the relocation; 135 left rather than move.)
Fast forward one year
In July 2021, Haaland, now secretary of the DOI in the new Biden administration, visited the Grand Junction headquarters, noting that there were still a large number of staff vacancies and that employees were “struggling” with their work. She continued, bluntly, “There’s no way to sugarcoat the trauma and disruption that continues to affect the team at Interior. And it’s why my first priority is to avoid doing any more harm to the BLM’s dedicated employees.”
Two months later, she announced that the headquarters would be moving back to D.C.
In a BLM press release discussing the move, she said, “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.” She added that the bureau’s “robust presence in Colorado and across the West will continue to grow.” It was subsequently announced that the Grand Junction office would be rechristened as BLM’s western headquarters.
Reaction from Colorado politicians of both parties was one of disappointment. Bennet noted, however, that a continued strong BLM presence in Junction would be “a very positive development … in number of employees and significance.” John Hickenlooper, Gardner’s Democratic successor in the Senate, echoed that sentiment, stating that a western headquarters “adds a western perspective and value to the BLM’s mission.” And Governor Polis said, in a written statement, “The initial presence [of BLM personnel] was far too small and now I’m finally hopeful that the office will grow.”
Tipton’s GOP successor, Lauren Boebert, criticized Colorado’s two senators for not doing more to keep the headquarters in Junction. She agreed, though, that having the western headquarters there would “be a win for Grand Junction and the West as … more jobs will move to Grand Junction, and all the jobs that moved out West won’t be moved back to D.C.”
The response from environmental organizations on the move back to D.C. generally has been positive. Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities (CWP), who had earlier denounced the move to Junction as “a PR stunt” that would turn the BLM into an “afterthought,” called the relocation the “end of an error.”
In conversation with The Sopris Sun, Rokala said, “The BLM has always had a great presence in the West.” (Some 97% of its employees are in western states.) She went on, “Having the western headquarters [there] will obviously be great for Grand Junction.” But, she noted, “It’s really important to have the BLM leadership ‘in the room’ [i.e., in D.C.],” adding, “The Grand Junction bridge to D.C. will be helpful” for the work of CWP and other organizations involved with the bureau.
Scott Braden, director of the Colorado Wildlands Project in Grand Junction — which “works to protect wild public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management” — is also pleased with the BLM’s decision. He noted to The Sun that “it’s certainly convenient” having the BLM office there, continuing “It’s a relief that the [headquarters] issue has been resolved. There are many more important issues,” which his organization works on with the BLM’s National Conservation Lands project, one of the entities remaining in the Junction office.
The move of BLM personnel back to Washington began in late 2021, and nearly all of the senior staffers are now there. This included Tracy Stone-Manning, who in September 2021 became the first Senate-confirmed director of the bureau in five years.
The extent of the western office’s future role is still being determined in Washington. An official BLM statement, shared with The Sopris Sun, said, “The BLM is in the process of reestablishing its headquarters in Washington, D.C., while also growing our continued presence in Grand Junction.” It went on, “Thirty-six jobs will stay in Grand Junction to reinforce western perspectives in decision-making and have an important role to play in the bureau’s … work as a leadership center in the West.”
A final note: The Public Lands Foundation, which in 2021 strongly urged Secretary Haaland to move BLM headquarters back to D.C., will hold its annual meeting in September in Grand Junction. Scheduled speakers include Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper and Director Stone-Manning.