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Retired public lands officials criticize Trump plan for move



FILE - In this July 16, 2019 file photo interior Secretary David Bernhardt listens during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. On Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, 30 retired executives from the Bureau of Land Management, which Bernhardt oversees, wrote him a letter saying that moving the bureau headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, and dispersing managers across 11 Western states could lead to worse stewardship of public lands. The department announced the move in July, saying it would lead to better decisions and save money, but some retired federal employees dispute that. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

DENVER (AP) — Former public lands managers heaped criticism Thursday on a Trump administration plan to move the headquarters of the nation’s largest land agency from Washington to the West.

Thirty past high-ranking officials from the Bureau of Land Management said moving the bureau headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, and dispersing managers across 11 Western states could hurt stewardship of public lands.

In a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who oversees the bureau, the retired officials called the move drastic and expensive.

The Interior Department didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The bureau oversees nearly 388,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) of public land, 99% of it in 12 Western states. It issues permits for oil and gas drilling, mining and ranching, manages outdoor recreation and enforces environmental protections.

The agency has about 10,000 employees, and most are already in field offices in the West. About 400 are in Washington, and the Interior Department said in July it planned to move about 300 of them to the West.

The department said that would lead to better decisions and save money. But those claims have come under fire from formal and informal groups of retired federal land managers.

The Public Lands Foundation, whose members are mostly former Bureau of Land Management employees, wrote Congress a blistering letter on Aug. 20, saying the move would “result in the BLM serving only the short-term wants of locally powerful stakeholders to the detriment of all other constituents and the long-term needs of the public lands.”

Later, the National Association of Forest Service Retirees wrote Congress that the move was either a mistake based on a misunderstanding of the bureau, “or worse, it signals a deliberate attempt to weaken the agency.”

The Forest Service is a separate agency, reporting to the Agriculture Department, but the association said its members worked closely with the Bureau of Land Management.

Thursday’s letter to Bernhardt was not from an organization but a group of former bureau officials ranging from state-level managers to deputy directors.

They contended the move would cost taxpayers, not save them money, because of the expense of relocating executives from Washington and having them frequently travel back to the capital for consultation.

“This is a massive disruption and expenditure of funds for no gain,” they wrote.

Others have praised the move, including Democratic and Republican officials in the West who expect to see more federal dollars and a higher profile for their states.

Some energy and ranching interests said they would benefit by closer contact with federal officials.

“Having the BLM out here and closer to the ground, we’re going to get better decisions,” Utah rancher Mike Noel said in July, when the move was announced.

“There’s a different philosophy out here than there is in Washington, D.C.”

Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP.

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