Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has requested over $20 million to relocate Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices from Washington DC to Grand Junction, Colorado.
BLM is a federal agency under the Department of the Interior that manages 245 million acres of public lands, mostly in Western states. The 22.9 million acres of BLM land in Utah include some of the the wildest, most remote places in the state.
The Utah Wilderness Coalition formed in 1985 in direct response to a poorly executed wilderness inventory of BLM Lands. Since BLM tends to have fewer restrictions than other federal agencies, these are places where Utahns can go without needing to get a permit, pay an entrance fee or board the dog. BLM lands are also leased for grazing, mining and fossil fuel extraction leading to the old joke that the acronym stands for “Bureau of Livestock and Mining.”
In 2012, the Utah Legislature put Utah at the center of a movement to privatize BLM lands by passing the Transfer of Public Lands Act. Under the influence of the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), privatization of public lands found its way into the 2016 Republican Party Platform.
Since then many Republican-sponsored public land bills have contained a hidden privatization agenda.
The idea of moving BLM managers west originated with Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) who says the move is important so that “decision-makers can live amongst the people and land their rules and regulations affect.”
In fact, BLM is already a highly decentralized agency with many regional field offices so that most BLM employees already live near the lands they manage. The main function of the Washington office is to facilitate interactions with legislators and other land management agencies.
It seems wise for environmentalists to assume that the move to Grand Junction is a cover for bad intentions. The move seems designed to get rid of employees from previous administrations who many not be willing or able to relocate.
Contrary to a multiple use philosophy, a signature policy of the Trump administration is “Energy Dominance.” Under Trump an Obama-era rule known as BLM 2.0 designed to involve local communities in public lands planning was rescinded, and public comment periods have been shortened or eliminated.
When Trump cut down Bears Ears National Monument the word “local” was widely misused by anti-monument politicians to mean assigning power to county government while shutting out input from other stakeholders.
Grand Junction is a “drill baby drill” kind of place and no doubt Republicans think the move will put the agency under the thumb of oil and gas interests. However, it seems likely that anti-federalist Republicans have vastly overestimated citizen support for transfer of federal public lands in Western states and that the ideology of privatization may actually have less influence in places where citizens know exactly what they stand to lose.
Grand Junction was ground zero of the oil shale bust in the 1980s and rebounded due to retired people who want to live near public lands. It is within driving distance of both Salt Lake City and Denver where support for lands conservation is high, and where citizen conservation groups are active and effective.
So far, thanks to the tireless efforts of citizen activists, Utah’s federal land grab has failed, and Utah’s public lands are still in public hands. From that standpoint, moving BLM to Grand Junction may not be an entirely bad thing after all.