The executive director of Grand Junction Economic Partnership on Tuesday defended before a congressional committee the Bureau of Land Management's choice of the city as its new national headquarters.
Robin Brown spoke at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing regarding the agency's relocation plans, in part addressing concerns expressed at the hearing about the adequacy of air travel between the Grand Junction Regional Airport and other locations.
"Our air service is improving tremendously as our economy has improved," Brown said.
She pointed to the ability of employees of businesses in Grand Junction to travel to other locations.
"You can work on a global scale from Grand Junction," she said.
U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat representing the District of Columbia, said virtually the entire BLM workforce already is in the field where it should be, and the relocation plans would leave the agency with virtually no headquarters staff left in Washington.
"It's an extreme proposal, to put it mildly," she said.
William Perry Pendley, who is currently serving as the BLM's acting director, said remaining Washington employees will be located in the Department of Interior's office, just down the hallway from the Interior secretary and deputy secretary, providing for more interaction with them, and he said the BLM will remain able to be interactive with Congress.
The BLM is planning to move 27 mostly high-level jobs, including the director position, to Grand Junction. More than 50 other BLM Washington positions are to be moved elsewhere in Colorado, and nearly 300 altogether are to be moved from the capital to western states.
Tuesday's hearing focused in part on concerns among some that the move is aimed at dismantling the agency.
"There is no doubt this plan fits this administration's pattern of trying to sell out our environment and natural resources," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
Part of that concern arises from Pendley's previous advocacy before joining the BLM for transferring or selling federal lands from the government's hands. He told the committee that as a member of the Trump administration he supports President Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt's statements that the administration won't engage in the wholesale disposal or transfer or public lands.
The BLM is moving forward with its relocation plans, including looking for office space in Grand Junction, which will cost considerably less than what the agency pays for its Washington office space.
The BLM and relocation supporters such as U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., say it's important that the headquarters be near the lands and communities BLM decisions affect.
"We want to be a good neighbor and we can't be a good neighbor if we're not first a neighbor," Pendley said.
Grijalva noted concerns, including from some retired federal employees, that the move would cause staff to quit, eliminating their institutional knowledge and hamstringing the agency.
Pendley said his and Bernhardt's goal is to not lose a single employee and the BLM is doing everything it can to retain them. He said specific positions to be relocated will be identified next week.
Brown expressed surprise at the idea that BLM employees wouldn't want to relocate from Washington.
"I would argue that if you have a BLM employee that doesn't want to live near BLM land, that's a sign that you should reorganize," she said.
But Rep. TJ Cox, D-Calif., questioned the logic of Grand Junction as the headquarters choice. He cited the amount of BLM land in Nevada and said a flight from Reno to Washington costs $300, compared to $600 in the case of Grand Junction.
"So why Grand Junction?" he asked. "What's the justification for locating there? No disrespect for my colleagues but there's no major airport there."
He said while the BLM talks about moving headquarter employees out into the field, it looks to be a move to "probably left field."
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., supported the choice of Grand Junction.
"It's very centrally located," said Gosar, who said he has family ties to the city.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., pointed to a chart that he says shows only four states are served by direct flights from Grand Junction. But Brown said the 18 to 20 flights a day from the airport go to many more locations than that.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who said his constituents support the relocation, said he would have used Tonko's chart to show how hard it is for people in the West to go to Washington.
"The reality of it is we're here to serve. We shouldn't ask them to come to us. We should be going to them," he said.
Pendley said he long has lived in Evergreen, Colorado, and "wouldn't trade that for anything."
He said, "I daresay people going out to Grand Junction will love what they see."