BLM Leadership Moves Back to DC

Yesterday  Steve asked after Jon “what does the FS do well?”  And remember our own Colorado Senator Bennet was quoted as saying “When you combine the effects of climate change with the profound negligence of the federal government in terms of managing its national forests, these places are profound dangers to our communities and to our economy,” It seems like these are potentially finger-pointing statements (has finger-pointing replaced baseball as the national pastime?).  Whose fault? The “federal government” as Bennet says, or the specific agency?

Conveniently, we have a different federal agency (BLM) with a different culture, who also manages for multiple use, so perhaps that is an apt comparison.  And if I were to oversimplify (and echo former Wyo Governor Freudenthal) different stripes of admins generally push agencies to do more of some things and less of other things; while career folks negotiate these waves of preferred priorities, sometimes hunkering down and sometimes surfing. I think that there is something to be learned from comparing the two agencies, though, and fortunately many career folks have switched back and forth so there is information to be had.

One of the not so good comparisons is that (according to my sources) FLPMA requires/allows the head of BLM to be a political appointee.  This makes for an entirely different career/political interface than the FS.  As folks interested in good government, and what programs/policies (e.g. e-bikes, consultation, and so on)  make sense to be similar for the two agencies, it’s interesting to observe how this politicization plays out.

Here’s a story in The Hill about the move back of career leaders from Grand Junction:

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will move several of its leadership positions back to Washington, D.C., after a controversial Trump-era move to send leadership to Grand Junction, Colo.

An email sent out by BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning that was obtained by The Hill states that the agency will “consolidate” most of its directors in Washington.

Specifically, it states that the director and deputy director of operations have already returned to the district, joining the deputy director for policy and programs. It said that 8 additional leaders including “most assistant directors and deputy assistant directors” will also return to D.C.

The message also said that 30 vacant headquarters senior positions will be based in D.C.

A spokesperson for the Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, confirmed the accuracy of the email that was obtained by The Hill, which specified the fate of the 11 leadership positions and 30 vacancies.

Spokesperson Melissa Schwartz also confirmed that a total of about 100 positions including 60 existing positions and the aforementioned 41 jobs will be based in D.C.

Thirty-six jobs will stay in Grand Junction, and are expected to be complimented by more yet-to-be posted jobs that were referenced in Stone-Manning’s email.

In 2019, the Trump administration announced that the Bureau of Land Management would move its headquarters from Washington D.C., to Grand Junction.

It argued that the move, which was completed last year, would put officials closer to the lands that they managed.

But critics saw it as an attempt to drive out career officials who may not have wanted to move west.

The Biden administration announced in September that it would restore its D.C. headquarters, but also maintain the Colorado office as its “Western headquarters.”

The Stone-Manning email that was obtained by The Hill states that two positions, the national conservation lands and community partnerships assistant director and deputy assistant director, will “anchor” the Colorado office.

She wrote that the office will “anticipate” posting additional positions that “reflect that office’s leadership role in BLM’s outdoor recreation, conservation, clean energy, and scientific missions, as well as outreach and Tribal consultation.”

Her message said that the fate of some positions remains up in the air.

My contacts in the Retiree Network say that replacing BLM SES folks (senior executives)  with those with favored political leanings is actually SOP for new color-changing administrations, and also it’s happening as we speak.  Also, I didn’t realize that BLM had a scientific mission.. at one point I thought that the USGS had taken over the research functions of all the Interior agencies .. but perhaps they grew back organically.

Anyone who knows more about any of this, please add.

9 thoughts on “BLM Leadership Moves Back to DC”

  1. A retiree told me that in his day at BLM there were six political appointees in addition to the Director (schedule C folk), traditionally coming from the Hill or ENGO’s.

    The Forest Service has zero. Possibly 6 x (150K?) or say 900K per year could be saved by switching to the FS model of career leadership.

    At least we could raise the hypothesis “does either work better for the public and employees?” After all the goal is simply to have the agency behave as the politicals prefer, which seems to be able to be accomplished, in the case of the FS, with an undersecretary only. Efficiency?

    • “After all the goal is simply to have the agency behave as the politicals prefer”

      There’s a reason courts defer to agency expertise rather than political prerogatives. Without launching full-bore into a philosophical debate over the constitutional basis for the modern administrative state, I would point out that most statutory authorities for both BLM and USFS (and pretty much all other domestic agencies) are premised on the application of scientific principles to achieve a stated set of objectives. The White House can certainly pursue policies that fit their particular political frame but agencies must implement those policies within a defined set of statutory sideboards. The Executive Branch can’t fundamentally redefine an agency’s mission or act in conflict with incontrovertible evidence, regardless of what the President prefers.

      “replacing BLM SES folks (senior executives) with those with favored political leanings is actually SOP for new color-changing administrations”

      Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean it is legal or appropriate. The Civil Service Reform Act states that “Employees should be … protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes.”

      It’s easy to get jaded into thinking that the hyper-partisan state of contemporary American governance is how things always were and are meant to be. We ought to constantly remind ourselves that neither is the case.

      • “The Executive Branch can’t fundamentally redefine an agency’s mission or act in conflict with incontrovertible evidence, regardless of what the President prefers.”

        I think they finally hammered that concept into the last President. He then seemed to have washed his hands of that issue, after the ‘rake scandal’. He lost interest in what he would never understand.

      • My understanding is that it has been something that is traditional within BLM culture. I’m all for amending FLPMA to require the Director to be a career person, and that might help somewhat.

        That’s a great quote from the Civil Service Reform Act but I don’t know how well it works out in practice.

        Interesting study… interview FS and BLM ers at different levels about whether they’ve experienced these things. Compare and contrast. I wonder who would fund it?

  2. You seem to assume that these 6 people are just another “layer of bureaucracy.” To compare efficiency it would be useful to know what they do, and whether they have jobs that are not necessary in the Forest Service, or whether their work is currently being done in the FS by career employees. If the latter, it would seem to be more about political control than efficiency (and fighting political control might actually be less efficient).

    • The six were in the past as per one retiree’s memory. I don’t know how many there are today. Yes and PD’s would be interesting to see, plus a daily log of activities..not sure how we could obtain that.
      I don’t think it’s about “fighting” political control. I think there are at least four possibilities:
      1. For whatever reason, it’s traditional to have more folks there. Force of habit.
      2. There’s less trust between politicals and career folks that career folks are carrying forward appropriately, so career folks need more instruction/oversight.
      3. BLM’s work is inherently more complex, so career folks need more instruction/oversight.
      4. They need more politicals to work on politically motivated actions (in addition to the usual way of doing business) and need political experience to make judgments of what’s OK.

      • “BLM’s work is inherently more complex…” How so, pray tell??

        “…so career folks need more instruction/oversight.” Do you really believe that political appointees understand the technical details of BLM’s work better than career civil servants?

        • A- I was producing a variety of imaginable hypotheses… so to think about “inherently more complex” I was thinking of all the technicalities of say, oil and gas operations and regulations, which arguably are more technically complex, both to undertake and to regulate, than chainsaws and yarders.

      • 1. Maybe saying it’s more traditional to have fewer politicals over the FS would be a better way of putting it. The agency likes to play up the uniqueness of its history (which put it in USDA instead of USDI to begin with), and we could be seeing residual effects of that here. (It also might be interesting to see if other USDA agencies are structured more like the Forest Service in this regard.) This also could tie into 2, where the FS is more trusted as the forestry/public lands “experts” in USDA because they are different from the other agricultural agencies and there is less interest or knowledge for oversight.


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