How to Put the Bureau of Land Management Back Together Again

The agency that oversees vast areas of the West was hollowed out and catered to industry under Trump, insiders say. Can the damage be fixed?

This past August, the headquarters of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management relocated from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado, an oil and gas town whose regional airport doesn’t offer direct flights to or from the nation’s capital, where lawmakers and federal officials make decisions every day that affect the BLM.

The Trump administration said the move would save taxpayers money on office rent and put more of the BLM’s employees closer to the 248 million acres of public lands and 700 million acres of subsurface minerals they manage, which are almost all in western states. But 97 percent of bureau staff were already distributed across satellite offices in the West. And a September report requested by Congress from the inspector general of the Department of the Interior—the bureau’s parent agency—cast doubt on rental costs as a motivating factor.

The real reason for the shakeup, critics claim, was to weaken the BLM and concentrate decision-making power in a team of pro-industry political appointees in the Interior Secretary’s office. They say this consolidation undermined collaborative planning at BLM and diminished the agency’s credibility at the local level. The department reported last month that 287 of the 328 BLM employees reassigned from the capital to Grand Junction or other western locations—87 percent of them—either quit or retired instead of relocating. Just 60 of the bureau’s 10,000 employees are now in Washington. The 41 staffers who moved to the new headquarters share a building with oil and natural gas companies and an industry association.

The relocation was perhaps the most visible sign of what conservation advocates, Indigenous leaders, and former BLM officials say was an intentional dismantling of the bureau and disavowal of its mission during the Trump years. It’s not the only agency hollowed out during the previous administration: Almost 200 employees left the U.S. Department of Agriculture during a similar westward move. The Environmental Protection agency lost more than 670 science positions, according to the Associated Press, while the Fish and Wildlife Service shed 231 scientists.

But for the BLM, which federal law requires to protect natural and cultural resources on public lands while maintaining a balance of uses—energy development, livestock grazing, mining, recreation, and more—losing institutional knowledge has been only part of the problem, experts say. The bureau in the past four years has also tipped that balance heavily in favor of industry as part of Trump’s “energy dominance” strategy. Staff are demoralized and stretched thin. And never in the past four years did the BLM have a Senate-confirmed director as the law requires, getting by instead with a series of interim leaders. (A federal judge ruled in September that William Perry Pendley, then the acting director, had been running the bureau illegally for 424 days because the administration hadn’t followed required steps to put him in charge.)

Now the Biden administration faces the major challenge of rebuilding an agency that experts say is in dire straits. “They’re inheriting a horrible mess,” says Steve Ellis, a former deputy director of the bureau. “A mess like I’ve never seen in my lifetime.”

Reverse and Relocate

Biden has already taken some big steps to rein in the Trump BLM’s focus on fossil fuels and halt or reverse some of its most controversial actions. On his first day in office he ordered a review of the eleventh-hour sale of the first leases ever issued in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the stripping of protections for the Greater Sage-Grouse on millions of acres across the West. A week later, he announced a pause on oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters pending a comprehensive review of the leasing program.

But one of the most important moves the new administration can make for public lands is moving the BLM headquarters back east, said Bob Abbey, who served as BLM director from 2009 to 2012, in an email. “The relocation to Grand Junction was a ridiculous idea and its sole purpose was to create internal chaos and dysfunction within the agency,” he said.

Having senior BLM staff in Washington is important because it’s where they can best represent the bureau by building relationships with other agencies, in Congress, and at the White House, Abbey and other former leaders agree. Moving BLM headquarters to Colorado also broke up the interdisciplinary nature of the D.C. office, where wildlife and fisheries biologists, range and forestry specialists, and experts on oil, gas, and minerals “all share the breakroom,” according to Ellis.

Disastrous as the move may have been in the eyes of past bureau leaders, Colorado politicians from both major parties are working to keep headquarters there. U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, along with Governor Jared Polis—all Democrats—sent letters to Biden advocating headquarters stay in place. A group of Republican members of Congress led by Representative Lauren Boebert, whose district includes Grand Junction, did the same.

Abbey said he can understand why Colorado politicians would support having headquarters there, given the economic benefits of its presence. “On the other hand,” he said, “my position is based on what is best for the management of our nation’s public lands and for the public being served, including those not yet born.”

The Biden administration is assessing the move, bureau spokesman Richard Packer said in an email. “The Interior Department’s new leadership will work with BLM career staff to understand the ramifications of the headquarters move and determine if any adjustments need to be made,” Packer said. “BLM’s important mission and the communities served by the agency deserve a deliberate and thoughtful process.”

Rebalance Agency Priorities  

With the BLM’s internal workings thrown into disarray and decision-making power centralized in then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s office, Trump administration officials were able to concentrate the bureau’s energy on resource extraction, former BLM leaders agree. Trump and his appointees directed the BLM to remove barriers to developing fossil fuels on public lands and reduced the royalties they pay on oil and gas produced there. The BLM offered up 25 million acres of oil and gas leases over the past four years—nearly as much as the Obama administration put up for lease in twice the time—including aggressive leasing in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat, a species particularly sensitive to disruption.

As Abbey sees it, the pause on new leasing that Biden announced last month is an opportunity to put the BLM on a path toward more balanced management that treats energy production not as the highest use of public lands but as one of many competing values. “I believe the review of Interior’s oil and gas programs is timely and the findings should set the stage for much needed regulatory reforms, including the possibility of increasing the royalty rate from producing wells,” he said.

Biden has also made it a priority to ramp up renewable energy production, including on public lands. The Trump administration was not as kind to wind and solar companies as it was to the fossil fuel industry, but the BLM won’t have to start from zero in balancing renewable-energy infrastructure with habitat protection and other values of public lands, according to Abbey. Under the Obama administration, the bureau designated “solar energy zones,” areas suitable for large-scale solar projects because they don’t have much cultural or recreational value or sensitive habitat. Abbey said the Biden BLM should pick up this planning strategy and ensure that local governments enjoy a fair share of the revenue from these new installations to help ease the transition away from oil and gas.

But after the shakeup caused by its move west, the BLM will need to rebuild its capacity to manage the rollout of new solar, wind, and geothermal projects in a thoughtful way, says Ray Brady, who retired as national manager of the bureau’s Renewable Energy Coordination Office in 2015. “As part of that reorganization effort, a lot of the resources in the Washington headquarters office were decentralized and scattered throughout the West,” he says. “It resulted in only one renewable energy program lead position remaining, and that position was relocated to Idaho.” As a result, Brady contends, “there remains no BLM renewable energy expertise in Washington to carry out the program.”

Restore Leadership and Morale

Biden hasn’t yet nominated a BLM director, but Interior announced on Monday the appointment of Nada Culver—who since 2019 has been the Denver-based vice president of public lands and senior policy counsel for the National Audubon Society—as the bureau’s new deputy director of policy and programs. Starting March 1, Culver will occupy the position Pendley previously held and will exercise the authority of the BLM director until the Senate confirms one.

A Senate committee held confirmation hearings this week for a different Biden nominee, U.S. Representative Deb Haaland, the president’s pick for Interior Secretary. Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, will be the first Indigenous person to serve as a Cabinet secretary if confirmed. Stakeholders who felt cast aside by the bureau under Trump-era Interior Secretary Bernhardt are optimistic that Haaland will steer both Interior and the BLM in a more equitable direction.

Under Bernhardt, Interior officials prized loyalty over competence in hiring key positions, BLM insiders say, leaving career employees dejected and demoralized. Joe Tague, who retired in early 2020 from a post as a BLM division chief after a 42-year career with the federal government, says he felt disrespected working under the Trump administration. “We were just the worker bees that get things done, but we didn’t have any input into policy or anything else,” he says. “There wasn’t even a discussion. It was just, ‘go do this.’ And I don't think any career employees were listened to.” Abbey, the former director, said his impression is that staff morale hit an “all-time low.”

Along with restoring morale within the agency, the BLM’s next director will have work to do in repairing relationships with public land users. The bureau under Trump cut the public—and Indigenous communities, in particular—out of the decision-making process, critics say. For example, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and the Gros Ventre Tribes sued the BLM in November, saying they were not consulted before the agency’s approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. (Biden has since canceled the pipeline’s permit.) Tony Small, vice chairman of the Ute Indian Business Committee, told Congress on behalf of several large tribes across the West that, although tribes submitted comments, the BLM didn’t consult with them about the headquarters move. Small opposed the move for reasons similar to those of former BLM leaders.

Some tribal leaders found it particularly hard to work with the BLM when Pendley ran it, says Angelo Baca, cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group that advocates on behalf of five tribes for protection of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Pendley—who in his prior role as head of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation sued the BLM and argued that the federal government should sell its public lands—has a history of racist statements. He has also been accused of belittling Indigenous people and fought against protections for lands that tribes hold sacred, including Bears Ears, which Trump dramatically shrank despite tribal objections.

The Biden administration is not waiting for Haaland to be confirmed before taking steps to repair relations with Indigenous communities. The president issued a memo on January 26 that directed agencies to engage in “regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal officials,” and the Interior Department announced recently that it will hold a series of initial consultations with tribes next month.

Baca—whose tribal affiliation is Diné and Hopi, and who has deep ancestral and cultural connections with the land in and around Bears Ears—says he’s hopeful that tribes will continue to gain a stronger voice under Haaland, who understands the lived experience of Indigenous people. “We need to have our seat at the table as leaders of nations,” he says. “It means a great deal to have an Indigenous person in a position of high office that’s respected and experienced, educated, and capable.”