Don McLean ended "Vincent," his classic tribute to Van Gogh, with the famous line, "They would not listen, they're not listening still — perhaps they never will."
The song was about the post-impressionist painter, but that line has been used in many political debates. It crosses my mind while hearing arguments against moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction. Writing two consecutive columns on the same subject is unprecedented for me, but so is the importance of this issue to the West, especially western Colorado. Moreover, opposition has begun to crystalize, and battle lines are drawn.
A few days ago I testified before the House Natural Resources Committee (on another subject), and had a chance to talk briefly with a majority staff director. I raised the subject of the BLM move and his reaction was blunt. "We are going to fight it tooth and nail," he vowed. That vow does not necessarily portend specific action, as he only works for one side, albeit the majority (Democratic) side, which can be expected to oppose virtually every proposal from the Trump administration. Nor would the Republican Senate likely agree to any House legislation to block the move. The House committee's opposition is not surprising, but its specific arguments are.
When Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner announced the decision last week, he acknowledged that there might be some attempt to stop it on the other side of the aisle. "Obviously notification will be given to Congress and there will be a time period where I guess if somebody wanted to they could throw a wrench into the works," he said, adding that he had not heard any "substantive" opposition. As we now know, there is plenty of opposition, though he is right that none of it is really substantive.
The House Committee chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, branded the plan as evidence of the administration's agenda to "hand over public lands to fossil fuel companies at record speed." That's "red meat" rhetoric for his base, understandable and expected. But his next line was actually more telling, saying that putting BLM headquarters in western Colorado makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors. That is actually the heart of the issue, as westerners have characterized it for decades. You see, wherever the headquarters is located, it is more accessible to those who live nearby — be they landowner interests out West or special interest lobbyists in Washington.
I also visited with a former official who is active in an association of BLM retirees. That group is especially opposed to the move, as he explained, because they fear a weakening of agency influence. He cited the difficulty employees might have talking directly with Congress, the White House, Interior Department bosses, budgeters, and appropriators. I countered, as Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has said, that officials would far rather live in Grand Junction than D.C., given the choice. He was originally from Utah and readily acknowledged the quality of life difference. But he said, most revealingly, "I am simply afraid that if we all lived in Grand Junction, nobody in Washington would pay us any attention." That is exactly the problem this move will address.
The director of the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental industry group, echoed that concern, saying "Moving senior BLM leadership would only turn the agency into an afterthought." This is precisely the point westerners have been making all along. Namely, Washington staff pays no attention to the needs of rural America — because they are busy talking to each other, influencing each other, spending time together in the halls and social hang-outs of Washington.
In effect, opponents are arguing that major decisions of the BLM not only are made in isolation from the Western communities whose livelihoods are impacted, but that's the way it should be. That flies in the face of America's original founding principle, that government only derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Congressman Scott Tipton got it right in saying, "Today is a great day for… every believer that the federal government should be closer to the people whom its decisions affect." That's what this debate is about — that's all it is about.
We have been saying for years that Washington ignores rural communities in the West. That might change now, at least for one agency. So, the better line from Don McLean's song is at the beginning. "They would not listen, they did not know how — perhaps they'll listen now."
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of "Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back." He is a Western Slope native.