Go West, BLM!

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — who has ridden off into the revolving-door sunset — had a lot of bad ideas and policies.

He thumbed his nose at sovereign tribal nations by shrinking Bears Ears National Monument; he decimated rules to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas industry; he hung the imperiled sage grouse out to dry; he leased out thousands of acres of public land for oil and gas development, with little regard to the cultural and ecological resources at stake. Meanwhile, he squandered Americans’ tax money on furniture and vacations.

But amongst all this wrecking of our public lands, Zinke did have one sensible proposal that is poised to be realized in his absence: Moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters out of Washington, D.C., and into the West, amid the vast acreage that it oversees. It’s a smart idea, and one that ultimately will benefit the region and its public lands.

The conservation community is understandably skeptical. After all, the proposal came from Zinke, who managed to embody the worst traits of the worst Interior Secretaries in U.S. history, from Albert Bacon Fall (corruption, beholden to oil corporations) to James Watt (bigot, disdainful of the ‘public’ in public land, beholden to oil corporations) to Gale Norton (plagued by scandal, beholden to oil corporations). David Bernhardt, Zinke’s successor, is a member of this same dubious club.

It’s reasonable to assume, then, that the BLM move is being orchestrated at the behest of the extractive industries, based on the belief that it will tilt the agency in their favor. For example, if the BLM set up shop in Grand Junction, which traditionally has been dependent upon mining and drilling, then the officials at that agency would have an interest in facilitating drilling and mining to economically benefit their community. Meanwhile, by placing the agency in the West, it would give more influence to those politicians who see extraction as the highest use of any and all public land. Some critics even believe that the move is being pushed by the likes of the Koch brothers and the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council as a first step towards mass privatization of public land.

So you may wonder how any rational person could possibly support such a notion, unless they were under the influence of Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s mind-altering Jell-O. Here’s the answer (and it has nothing to do with Utah’s official snack food): I’m not worried about Westerners getting more control over the BLM, because I’m pretty damned sure most Westerners are not ideologically predisposed to lay waste to our public lands.

If moving the BLM to the West gives the likes of Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who is hostile to the notion of public lands, more control, then it will do the same for sane politicians, such as Democratic Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall from New Mexico or Rep. Raul Grijalva from Arizona. If sagebrush rebels get more influence, so will regional environmental groups that don’t have the cash to base people in Washington, D.C. Westerners who are alarmed by the de facto privatization of public lands known as oil and gas leasing can protest not just at their state BLM office, but at the national office as well.

And if relocated BLM officials see how drilling benefits the community’s economy, they’ll also get a firsthand look at how that same drilling can be detrimental to public health and quality of life — and therefore the economy. Grand Junction, one of the top candidates to house the relocated HQ, has been shifting slowly toward an amenities economy ever since the early-1980s oil-shale bust rippled through the community. The Colorado city is banking on its good health care, a decent climate, and access to public lands for recreation to draw new businesses and residents. Unfettered oil and gas development on those same public lands would hamper these efforts.

Meanwhile, the 300 well-paying, relatively stable jobs that come with the office would support the city’s move away from an extraction-based economy. That, in turn, could very well shift the political hue in a place where hostility towards federal land managers is prevalent. It’s a lot tougher to hate government bureaucrats when they live next door, and when their agency is injecting a bunch of cash into the local economy.

I’d prefer to see the office moved to a more progressive and diverse city, such as Albuquerque, Santa Fe, or Tucson. But New Mexico’s strong shift to the left in the most recent elections knocked it out of contention, and Tucson is not centrally located enough. Salt Lake City and Denver have also been mentioned as top candidates, but Denver’s high housing costs surely will count against it.

Wherever it ends up, moving BLM HQ will render one of the Sagebrush Rebellion’s favorite rhetorical memes: The insistence that “their” backyards — i.e. our public lands — are being controlled by an absentee landlord based on the other side of the nation. Now it looks like the “landlord” is going to live among its “tenants.” And I say, “Go West, BLM!”

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RLSCoverSmallJonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of Colorado Book Award finalist River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.

 Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

9 Comments

  1. Insanity.

    Instead, how about talking about a real reorg, centralizing all land mgmt agencies into a single department to achieve greater economies of scale and consistency of policy (grazing, O&G, logging, recreation [incl wilderness], climate via NEPA).

    Your piece (and, later likely HCN) is what happens when english majors instead of in this case public administration professionals speak as an authority, supporting bad public policy to become reality.

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  2. Sorry about mis-IDing major. Then, you should understand the debate of natural rights v rights of nature better than most (including, me).

    Homesteading is the reason (Ketcham’s upcoming book gets into term definition), local extractive interests (regardless of locality intent) capturing regulators. These are public lands for the entire nation.

    And, with a graduate degree in public admin involved in public lands issues for 30 years, for reasons I wrote 18 mos ago.

    https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/11/23/zinkes-reorganization-of-the-blm-will-continue-killing-babies/

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    1. I hate to break it to you, Chris, but extractive interests have already captured the BLM regulators in a number of places. See Farmington Field Office: https://www.hcn.org/articles/water-court-throws-book-at-blm-over-fracking-chaco

      And for that matter, they’ve also captured the national office in Washington. In fact, the extractive industries are running the show (see Interior Secretary David Bernhardt). The oil companies can afford to send lobbyists to D.C., as can the Big Greens. The on-the-ground, regional greens? Not so much.

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  3. Adding, I did say in my OP:

    “Instead, how about talking about a real reorg, centralizing all land mgmt agencies into a single department to achieve greater economies of scale and consistency of policy (grazing, O&G, logging, recreation [incl wilderness], climate via NEPA).”

    Further, the above would likely result in more a efficient, effective and responsive department/agency, three primary goals of organization theory.

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  4. This comment was a bit of a surprise to me seeing it coming from you, an experienced public lands issues analyst.

    As a former BLM’er with boots-on-the-ground experience as well as being a manager in the field and in DC, I am disappointed to see your arguments in support of the idea that BLM “go west.” BLM IS west; 97% of it. And it’s that 97% that touches the local communities and resources every day and has the responsibility to make public land decisions for BLM. It’s state directors and DC executives that must override those decisions, and moving DC out west only complicates that reality.

    I don’t have the space to capture all the logic in opposition to such a move, but refer you to the 9/5/19 letter (https://publicland.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/SES-Letter-Final-09-05-2019.pdf).) from dozens of former BLM field and headquarters managers and executives to Secy Bernhardt for substantive reasons for opposing such a move I hope you will read their logic for opposing the proposal and rethink your original position.

    I will say that your argument for moving the BLM out west being a financial boon to the locale that might receive the staffers flies in the face of a history of environmental argument against public land managers making decisions based on solely economics. You state, “. . . the 300 well-paying, relatively stable jobs that come with the office would support the city’s move away from an extraction-based economy. That, in turn, could very well shift the political hue in a place where hostility towards federal land managers is prevalent.” If the 97% who are out west now and know the issues intimately aren’t enough to support the city’s move away from an extraction-based economy, the few added in this proposal won’t either. And I firmly believe that the hostility toward federal land managers you point to will only be exacerbated by the addition of the DC executives. And, in reality, those being slated for moving under to proposal are to be placed in a myriad of locations, not just one office or one community.

    There is much more to this move than the economics of the relocation proposal. The overall impacts of such a move would be a serious blow to good public land management efforts of BLM’ers working on the ground. Local decision makers in the Agency would be trumped by the few left in DC who would make decisions without adequately analyzed input from the field and, incidentally, from ALL the West constituencies affected by public land decisions.

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    1. Rodger,

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. I do appreciate your arguments. However, I continue to see merits in moving the BLM headquarters and 300 employees to Grand Junction or some other Western city. I think it would give better access to local/regional environmental groups such as San Juan Citizens Alliance, Uranium Watch, and many others who cannot afford to send folks to Washington, and it would allow the head honchos at BLM to better oversee their state and regional field offices.

      That said, I do NOT support what the Trump administration is currently doing with the BLM. They are not moving the D.C. HQ to Grand Junction, they are dispersing staffers all over the West, which diminishes the positive economic impact of the move, while diminishing the agency, in general. The administration has sprung this on employees in a way that clearly is intended to urge them to quit altogether, thereby further weakening the agency.

      And, to top it all off, the new Grand Junction office will be in the same building as oil and gas company offices. Sheesh! It’s just a downright acknowledgment of what we’ve long known: The Trump administration’s BLM (and to a certain extent the BLM under previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican) is a victim of regulatory capture.

      Thanks again,
      Jonathan

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