Plans to relocate the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo., are moving full steam ahead.
Just last week, hundreds of employees at the Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, were given relocation notices. That starts a 30-day clock for them to either agree to move or choose early retirement.
As many as 250 BLM employees at the agency's Washington, D.C., offices must either choose to relocate to a field office out west or face being booted from the federal workforce.
Acting BLM Director William Pendley says those employees can begin to apply for early retirement next week. Once approved, their separation from federal service would occur by the end of next January.
The move could result in big changes for the agency's office in Billings.
Officials tell MTN News that three headquarter positions will move to the Montana/Dakotas state office in Billings to address specific needs regarding compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, along with energy, minerals and realty.
The BLM manages some 245 million acres of public land across the country, and also controls 700 million acres of mineral rights.
BLM officials said relocating its headquarter functions to the western U.S. will not only benefit the public but also its employees.
But critics, including the agency's former assistant director, believe the relocation is "a terrible idea.
"What this is really doing is moving the top career people out of Washington, D.C., leaving just primarily the political appointees, who most of the time don't have a whole lot of knowledge about how you should manage the public land," said Mike Penfold, who was also former BLM state director for Montana/Dakotas & Alaska. He had 36 years of experience in the agency.
Jayson O'Neill, deputy director of Western Values Project, a Montana-based, public-lands watchdog group, has similar concerns.
"This is the beginning of a severe brain drain, a severe loss of expertise. What that allows is those special interests, those corporate interests that want to exploit our public lands and profit off them, to gain an inholding over the rest of the public," O'Neill said.
He added that the agency has provided little information on how much the plan will save taxpayers.
BLM Spokesman Derrick Henry told said in a Friday email "moving the people who make critical decisions about those lands and programs closer to the people and landscapes affected, will help provide a greater on-the-ground understanding and will also foster better partnerships with communities and organizations there."
Other benefits of the move, he said, include having more senior staff working closer to junior employees, increasing opportunities for mentoring and training of future leaders. Plus, there's a general cost savings due to less expensive office space and decreasing travel costs, he added.
But a major criticism of the plan is the lack of any specific justification or cost analysis.
O'Neill said the agency has failed to provide any details on how the relocation will be more efficient, not only for those who interact with BLM, but also the taxpayers who are on the hook to pay for the bill.
According to reporting from online newspaper The Hill, although the Interior Department says it's been given the green light to spend $5.7 million on its reorganization plan, future funding is still very much in question.
Just this week, a group of D.C. lawmakers asked appropriators to block funding for the BLM move, which they claim is “designed to harm public lands and limit congressional oversight.”