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Will the Bureau of Land Management’s new headquarters stay in the West?

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The outside of the Grand Junction, Colorado, building where the Bureau of Land Management is housed.

The Bureau of Land Management is renting out space in this building near the airport in Grand Junction, Colorado. Madelyn Beck via Mountain West News Bureau

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The new Bureau of Land Management headquarters is in a sprawling four-story brick and glass building near the airport in Grand Junction, Colorado. The agency isn’t the only tenant, but it’s likely the most controversial.

Under the Trump administration, the BLM’s acting director, William Perry Pendley, moved the headquarters away from Washington, D.C., touting the relocation as good for public lands, the agency’s budget and employees’ quality of life.

“We want them closer to the lands they manage and the people they work with rather than two and even four time zones away in Washington,” he said.

He pointed out that 97% of BLM employees already lived around the West. The bureau oversees 245 million surface acres, most in the Western half of the U.S. — a tenth of the nation’s land base. 

But critics say headquarters and senior officials need to be in Washington, where the funding and power are. 

According to BLM, nearly 300 of its employees retired, quit or found other jobs after the headquarters announcement, and only three Washington staffers have officially moved to Grand Junction.

Jack and Linda Mueller say it’s good for a public lands agency to have a headquarters near the land it serves.

And some in Grand Junction say it’s good for the community that the BLM headquarters is now located here.

“I always thought it was a great move for the city,” said Jack Mueller, who was sitting outside a coffee shop in Grand Junction on a hot afternoon. “I don’t know what to think of the people who are saying ‘We don’t want to move [to Grand Junction].’”

Mueller and his wife, Linda, are retired and say they love the area. Linda was similarly confused about why people wouldn’t jump at the chance to move out West.

“Anybody that wants to go back to D.C. deserves it,” she said.

Plenty of other people around Grand Junction also thought headquarters should stay, like resident Deese Daency.

“I just love that we would have the opportunity to have them here locally. And I think it truly makes more sense,” she said.

Miranda Purcell holds the leash of her dog Hoosier on a sunny day in Grand Junction.

But others aren’t so sure.

Miranda Purcell said she heard that moving BLM headquarters to the West would benefit the public lands the agency oversees. But she’s also heard concerns about taking the headquarters away from decision-makers in Washington “and removing them from the conversation. So I don’t know which one I agree with.”

One thing is certain: Moving headquarters here is an economic boon to the area, worth about $9 million a year in jobs alone, according to the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.

“That economic impact for us really at this point comes primarily from those jobs and the multiplier of those 40 plus employees,” said Diane Schwenke, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Multiplier meaning the money the BLM employees would spend on goods and services that support other jobs in the area.

Diane Schwenke, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, says having the headquarters for a federal agency boosts the town’s profile, possibly attracting more business.

And things have been challenging for the town. It used to rely more on the booms and busts of fossil fuel production, which hurt the community for years after the 2008 recession. But now Schwenke said they’re diversifying into manufacturing and tourism, and they survived the pandemic in OK shape.

“I’m glad that I’ve actually seen our community in Mesa County survive the COVID pandemic economically, much stronger than a lot of other places. And that has not been the traditional history of our community,” she said.

It’s not just people in Grand Junction who want the headquarters to remain. Colorado’s Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has said he doesn’t agree with how the move happened, but he wants headquarters to stay now that it’s there.

According to Conor Cahill, Polis’ spokesperson, “while the last administration failed to implement the move in many ways, there is a great opportunity under the Biden administration to do it right, benefiting Western communities, conservation and the agency as a whole.”

Aaron Weiss with the nonprofit Center for Western Priorities disagreed. He said the headquarters should be closer to lawmakers and other agencies.

“Everything BLM does involves interfacing with the Fish and Wildlife Service, with the Park Service, with the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service,” he said.

The move could even play a role in whether senators confirm Tracy Stone-Manning to be the new BLM director. She’d strongly opposed the move to Colorado a few years ago. When asked about headquarters during a confirmation hearing, though, her response was vague.

“You have my commitment to dive in and carry the folks of Grand Junction and their concerns with me to the consideration [about BLM headquarters],” she said.

Chris Brown owns Brown Cycles, a bike shop in Grand Junction. He understands the reasons to keep and move the BLM headquarters, but thinks there’s another option: split it in two.

But maybe there’s a third way so the government doesn’t have to choose between D.C. or Grand Junction.

“Realistically, a split probably makes more sense,” said Chris Brown, owner of Brown Cycles bike shop in Grand Junction. “You don’t have to be, you know, sitting next to somebody to govern and manage things.”

That way, Brown said, those who want to live in Grand Junction, like those who already moved, can. And the rest can stay in the powerhouse that is Washington, D.C.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado and KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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