An Interior Department official on Wednesday defended plans to relocate Bureau of Land Management Washington, D.C., jobs out West but said the department will rethink sending some of those jobs to New Mexico in response to concerns raised by a U.S. senator there.
Joseph Balash, assistant secretary for lands and minerals management, offered his comments in a letter to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
He was responding to a letter sent to him last week by Udall, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department, and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee with that same oversight. They asked that Interior suspend the move, questioned the adequacy of analysis behind the decision to make Grand Junction the new BLM national headquarters, and said moving jobs from Washington suggests an effort to weaken and dismantle the BLM.
Under the move, 27 BLM national-level jobs, including the director job, are to be relocated to Grand Junction. More than 50 other BLM headquarters positions are scheduled to be moved elsewhere in Colorado. Altogether Interior has announced plans to relocate nearly 300 jobs to western states.
Those plans include 39 jobs slated to go to New Mexico.
Unless the New Mexico jobs are pulled from the plans soon, Balash won't be involved with any such decision. He has announced plans to leave his Interior job at the end of this month.
In their letter, Udall and McCollum said Interior had provided "incomplete and superficial" information about the plan to relocate the jobs. In response, Balash in his letter cited six instances this summer in which Interior briefed or responded to House and Senate committees about realigning the BLM and relocating jobs.
"All of these briefings and communications have explained the advantages, efficiencies, and other savings of such a relocation to the Department, our stakeholders and the public," Balash wrote.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., had advocated for years to have BLM headquarters jobs moved out West, and preferably to Grand Junction.
Balash wrote to Udall that, given his "apparent strong feelings" about Interior's "actions and intentions, we pledge to review and reconsider the relocation of additional Departmental resources to your State." Balash said Interior also is open to working with others in Congress who object to more department resources being allocated to their states.
Udall and McCollum in their letter also voiced worry about the headquarters relocation reducing interactions between BLM leaders and others including Interior officials and members of Congress, thus reducing BLM access to the policy and political decisionmaking that occurs in Washington.
Balash wrote to Udall, "while you may believe that ease of communication for Members of Congress and its staff should be a priority for the Bureau's headquarters location, we believe it is more important that the Bureau's day-to-day focus should be on interacting with your constituents and the American people in fulfilling its mission."
In a press statement Wednesday, Udall said he has attempted to work in good faith with Interior leadership about the BLM reorganization and headquarters move to Colorado, "changes that will have a significant impact on New Mexico and public lands across the West. But the actions of the Department and the lack of justification for this proposal seem to underscore the message that Interior officials fully intended to dismantle and weaken the BLM from the outset."
Trump has yet to nominate a BLM director, and meanwhile Udall is concerned that the administration has installed William Perry Pendley, who Udall calls a "radical supporter of the elimination of public lands," to effectively serve as acting BLM director while evading the Senate confirmation process.
"I will continue to ask tough questions of the Department and I will not accept any attempts by the administration to steamroll Congress in their efforts to deliberately dismantle and weaken the BLM," Udall said.
Balash sent McCollum a similar letter to his response to Udall. She said in a statement released Wednesday, "Unfortunately, this letter continues the pattern of this administration's failure to recognize Congress' role as a co-equal branch of government. It is our constitutional duty to conduct oversight and ensure appropriated taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.
"I expect to work with the administration on reorganizations and reprogrammings in a manner of mutual respect. But it is not acceptable to circumvent Congress. I along with other members of Congress are concerned that BLM is moving in a direction that will lead to employee attrition and uncertainty in BLM's ability to achieve its mission and goals."