The case to keep the Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Grand Junction has been made again and again — usually on the premise that senior staff at the agency should be closer to the lands they manage.
Opponents have a quick rejoinder: That’s what BLM field offices are for.
Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper (and, by association, Rep. Lauren Boebert) are inching closer to a better argument — one that gets to the heart of the divisions in this country that former President Donald Trump so skillfully exploited. It’s the chasm between rural America and urban elites. Or the “have nots” growing frustrated with how the “haves” dictate the terms of growth and opportunity in this country.
This idea is old hat around here. Western Slope counties had to band together under the auspices of Club 20 just to get decent roads a half-century ago. It’s been an uphill climb ever since to get the state legislature to acknowledge that Colorado’s problems don’t begin and end along the I-25 corridor.
That’s made Grand Junction and other Western Slope communities resoundingly self-reliant, if not hostile toward the consolidation of power around Front Range interests. The same attitude persists regarding the federal government. As much as we love Colorado, it’s still just fly-over country to some politicians inside the Beltway.
So, when the Trump administration started to make overtures regarding the relocation of the BLM to a western locale, it felt like an overdue moment of reckoning. Finally, somebody gets it. We’re real people out here, no less deserving of the benefits that go hand-in-hand with hosting a major federal agency.
The fact that the administration overpromised and under-delivered was nearly beside the point. That’s how far rural expectations have fallen. We felt lucky to have been seated at the table, then left at the altar when the new administration indicated that moving the headquarters back to D.C. was a real possibility. It’s the “Whack-A-Mole” phenomenon: Every time we try to pop up to meet opportunity, someone is standing there with a mallet.
Sen. Bennet seems especially aware of this predicament. As he’s made clear during frequent visits to Grand Junction, the nation’s long-term prosperity depends on a thriving rural America. That means rural Coloradans need equal access to education and opportunity. But it also means that agitations about being left behind contribute to ugly partisanship, ambivalence or a dim view of government that make it nearly impossible to pass meaningful legislation.
Hickenlooper echoed those sentiments recently. He said it makes sense to get government out of Washington.
“There’s some reason why people are kind of turned off and becoming apolitical,” he said during a recent online Zoom meeting organized by Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership. “It’s because their government seems so far away from them.”
And that’s the crux of the case Bennet and Hickenlooper have made to President Biden — that a “a full (BLM) headquarters in Colorado would not only grow the western Colorado economy, but also send an important signal that rural America is an appropriate place for such a prestigious institution.”
Rep. Lauren Boebert in many ways embodies the skepticism a rural America has learned to feel about government. She ran on a “freedom” platform, but it may as well have been a “freedom from” platform: Freedom from overregulation, freedom from government overreach, freedom from government intrusion into personal decisions.
She beat a five-term incumbent because that message resonates in rural Colorado.
There is a unique sting that comes with the humiliation of feeling left behind. Donald Trump’s lip service to that pain was a welcome salve for so many in rural America. The BLM Headquarters move to Grand Junction was the kind substantive change that could reverse rural America’s skepticism of government.
Reversing that move would encapsulate in so many ways the frustration of rural America generally: Feeling thwarted — held under water just far enough to see what we’re losing to the ‘haves.’
Editor's note: This version has been updated to attribute the quote about why people are becoming apolitical to Sen. John Hickenlooper.