SALT LAKE CITY — Utah will gain 44 BLM staffers in a realignment that will move the agency's headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado, the Department of Interior announced Tuesday.
That is fewer than state officials had hoped as several politicians had been lobbying for the agency to move its headquarters to Ogden.
Nearly 300 employees in the Bureau of Land Management will relocate from the nation's capital to states throughout the West as part of the agency's reorganization that officials say will bring more responsibility and authority to local BLM staff.
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a news release that "a meaningful realignment … is rooted in how changes will better respond to the needs of the American people."
"Shifting critical leadership positions and supporting staff to Western states — where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located — is not only a better management system, it is beneficial to the interest of the American public in these communities, cities, counties and states," Bernhardt said.
According to a letter detailing the move sent to congressional committees, 37 BLM employees in Washington will be moved to Utah and another seven positions will be allocated for the Utah BLM office. The agency noted that "given the growth in recreation opportunities across (Utah), these positions will provide increased support to the field while offering improved coordination with external partners and direct exposure to the resources the division manages."
Last August, Susan Combs, acting assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Department of the Interior, visited several areas in Ogden, including the Federal Building, which is home to the regional headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service.
Republican Rep. Rob Bishop and other top Utah politicians pushed hard for Ogden to be the Interior Department's realistic relocation choice with its Forest Service presence and it serving as home to a regional IRS Center, in addition to an eclectic mix of outdoor businesses.
Earlier last year, Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, ran a resolution urging BLM headquarters to come to Utah. It passed and was signed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
The reorganization of the U.S. Department of Interior and the relocation of BLM headquarters came under the direction of then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who said it made more sense for the agency to be closer to the land it manages and the resources under its purview.
Conservative Utah politicians and others around the West have long argued there's a "disconnect" between Washington, D.C., and land management decisions often carried out in a top-down fashion.
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, the Senate sponsor of the resolution who represents counties in southeast Utah, said he would have liked to have seen a lot more BLM jobs come to Utah, but Grand Junction isn't a bad pick either.
"Ogden would have been a better choice than Grand Junction, but Grand Junction is still a better choice than Boise or Denver," he said.
"I am glad that they are least moving the people out here who are closer to the land they manage," Hinkins said. "I am glad to see them doing it. It will give some of our kids a chance to go to work who don't want to go to Washington, D.C."
Environmental groups were quick to respond to the Interior Department's move.
“This isn’t an effort to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, it’s an attempt to dismantle it altogether," Jennifer Rokala, executive director for the Center for Western Priorities, said in a news release. "While only a couple dozen people will be sent to Grand Junction, nearly 300 others will be scattered in offices throughout the West."
She said the changes is a "cynical attempt to drain the Interior Department of expertise and career leadership."
Another group blasted the cost.
"At a time when America's public lands are facing unprecedented challenges and the Interior Department is diverting park entrance fees for the president’s 4th of July party, an expensive and unnecessary relocation for the BLM is as irresponsible as it is ill-advised," Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, said in a news release.
The Interior Department noted in its letter that there will still be a core headquarters in Washington, and that the agency will save millions in travel costs by stationing staff in the West. It also noted that leasing office space in Grand Junction is far cheaper than in Washington.
The relocation of employees will take place during the next 15 months, until the BLM's lease expires in 2020. The agency said it is hoping to have staff volunteer for initial reassignments by Aug. 15.