Moving US land agency west brings praise, prompts questions

FILE - In this Dec. 31, 2018, file photo, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., arrives at the Senate Chamber for an abbreviated pro-forma session at the Capitol in Washington. The headquarters of the U.S. government's largest land agency will move from the nation's capital to western Colorado, a Republican senator said Monday, July 15, 2019, a high-profile component of the Trump administration's plan to reorganize management of the nation's natural resources. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The Trump administration's plan to move the government's largest land management office from Washington to the West is prompting a mix of praise, criticism and questions

DENVER — The Trump administration's plan to move the government's largest land management office from Washington to Colorado evoked a mix of praise, criticism and questions on Tuesday.

The Bureau of Land Management scheduled a formal announcement of its plans Tuesday afternoon. A day earlier, delighted Republican lawmakers said the bureau's headquarters would move to Grand Junction, Colorado, and about 300 jobs would be relocated to Colorado, Nevada, Utah and other Western states.

The bureau, part of the Interior Department, oversees nearly 388,000 square miles (1 billion square kilometers) of public land, and 99% is in 12 Western states. Those lands produce oil, gas and coal, and ranchers graze livestock on them as well.

"This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government," Colorado GOP Sen. Cory Gardner said.

Gardner released a letter from the Interior Department Tuesday confirming the move to Grand Junction, a city of about 63,000 people 250 miles (400 kilometers) west of Denver.

Bill Stringer, a Uintah County, Utah, commissioner and retired Bureau of Land Management employee, said it's a good idea to put more agency employees "closer to where the action is" and in the same time zone as many of the ranchers who seek permits on public land.

But Stringer said he wants to hear the details.

"Theoretically, it sounds like you might have better access," said Stringer, who retired in 2014 from the BLM. "But I'm interested in seeing what it really looks like."

He noted that flying in and out of Grand Junction could be logistically difficult for people coming from Washington.

Steve Ellis, another retired bureau official who served as deputy director of the agency, questioned how effective senior leaders could be if they are in western Colorado while budget negotiations and briefings for Congress take place in Washington.

"Those functions are critical, and they're time-sensitive," he said. "My concern is, they're not going to operate well with key people west of the Rockies."

Ellis dismissed the argument that Bureau of Land Management staff will make better decisions if the headquarters is in the West, saying 95% of the agency's staff is already in field offices.

The bureau has 9,000 employees, most of them scattered among 140 state, district or field offices.

"This move will further remove BLM career leadership from policy decisions that will still be made in Washington by the (Interior) department," Ellis said.

The Center for Western Priorities, an environmental group, also scoffed at the argument that moving the headquarters west would lead to better decisions.

"This announcement is nothing but a PR stunt," the group's executive director, Jennifer Rokala, said in a written statement." Moving senior BLM leadership would only turn the agency into an afterthought, rather than a core piece of the Interior Department."

Interior Department officials have said they also considered Denver; Salt Lake City; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Boise, Idaho, for the new headquarters.

The move is part of a broader plan to reorganize the Interior Department, launched by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke stepped down in January amid ethics allegations, and his successor, David Bernhardt, continued the planning but with less fanfare.

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McCombs reported from Salt Lake City.

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