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The politics of the BLM's relocation to the West

Opinion: Will this move be a brain drain or a swamp drain?


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In 1789, Congress created three Executive branch departments: Foreign Affairs (later renamed State), Treasury, and War. It also provided for an Attorney General and a Postmaster General. It wasn't until March 3, 1849, the last day of the 30th session of Congress, that a bill was passed to create the Department of the Interior to protect and manage the nation's natural resources and cultural heritage.

If you ask Americans from the Midwest, the South or the East Coast, they may struggle with the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Interior.  Solicit a Westerner, and you’ll get an earful.

The federal government owns 640 million acres, or nearly a third of the U.S. landmass — most of which is found in the West. The Interior manages America’s bountiful natural resources, including but not limited to: minerals, national parks, wildlife refuges and upholds federal trust responsibilities to Indian tribes and Native Alaskans.

Within Interior lay multiple agencies, or sub-divisions, focused on specific issues.  For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages issues affecting half our federal lands, approximately 245 million acres, or roughly 12% of the country, that sit primarily West of the Mississippi River.

For years, Westerners have struggled with the notion that policy decisions that impact them so squarely is mandated to them from unelected, career bureaucrats in Washington DC, more than 1,500 miles away. Fights over the Endangered Species Act, the rights of private landowners, the locations of energy projects, grazing rights, permitting times and proper access for multiple use of these lands are only a few of the classic examples of the battle between the West and Washington.

Time and time again, Westerns have been held hostage by decisions handed down to them with little concern for those with on-the-ground knowledge or impact. Or worse yet, the DC-elite parachute in proclaiming some of the most terrifying words a Westerner can hear, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

And that’s exactly why Westerners have argued for BLM-focused decisions to be made with a more hands-on, ground-up approach. It’s a logical solution, to say the least, that uniquely Western, complex issues should be made by the Westerners, not Washingtonians.

In an all too rare moment of bipartisanship, Senators and Congressmen from both parties cheered on the idea. After all, there is evidence it would work. Stemming from the 2005 Energy Policy Act, the BLM ran a pilot program strategically placing energy field offices closer to development sites. The result was improved efficiencies and a more even-keeled balance of energy permitting and environmental conservation across the West. The U.S. patent office, responsible for issuing patents for businesses, entrepreneurs and inventors, followed the same logic when it opened its first satellite office in 2014 outside Washington DC – also out West in Denver.

Last fall, Colorado-native David Bernhardt, the current Secretary of Interior, announced that the BLM headquarters was indeed moving out West. The reasoning was akin to a business decision: to better serve its customers, i.e., Americans, specifically Westerners who are disproportionally affected by polices from the BLM, by moving its operations closer to them.

If you work in corporate America, relocation comes with the territory. Millions, if not tens of millions, of American workers for generations have experienced this same dilemma – relocate and possibly get promoted or find a new job.

It seems the only ones shocked by Secretary Bernhardt’s announcement are a handful of career bureaucrats who refused to move west to their agency’s new headquarters.  Perhaps they are addicted to their own comforts and habits? Or maybe they are worried about their tight grip of control and easy access from special interests close to them in Washington, DC?

But perhaps the most offensive excuse for opposing the move was the claim that the BLM would experience a “brain drain” if these staffers made good on their promise and quit working at Interior. According to a December letter from BLM Director Perry Pendley, two-thirds of the 153 employees asked to relocate out West said they will do so. That means less than 60 staffers would be responsible for disrupting this agency. That’s a pretty brazen claim by such a small number of individuals, even by DC-standards. 

The good news is that the West has a lot of brilliant people with novel, ground-up ideas who are likely poised and ready to fill these jobs. The BLM will better serve all the American people by being closer to the lands they manage.

And to those who fear for brain drain, I say it’s more like draining the swamp.

Thomas J. Pyle is president at the Institute for Energy Research, a non-profit energy policy think tank.

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