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Will The Bureau of Land Management's New HQ Stay In The West?

A four-story brick and glass building sits behind a nearly-empty parking lot. Most of the building's sides are red brick with windows, while the bottom floor has tan stone siding. The center portion of the building just has glass siding for all four floors. There is a strip of green grass and a few trees out front.
Madelyn Beck
/
Mountain West News Bureau
Bureau of Land Management Headquarters

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

Under the Trump administration, 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.

About 97% of BLM employees already lived out West, though, and critics of the move argued the agency's headquarters and senior positions should remain in D.C. where the funding and power is.

The agency also had nearly 300 staffers either retire, quit or transfer over the headquarters move. And only three D.C. staffers officially moved to Grand Junction out of a proposed 41 (though some transferred there from other offices or are still working remotely).

Now, one of the big decisions facing the Interior Department is whether the headquarters of an agency that manages 245 million surface acres in the West should head back East.

We wanted to hear what people in Grand Junction think about the decision.

Jack and Linda Mueller sit at a metal coffee table on the sidewalk in front of flower beds. There is also a metal sculpture behind them with large and progressively smaller squares pointing out at slightly different angles. Jack is sitting on the left and has a dark red baseball cap on, a white beard, black-framed glasses, checkered shirt, tan pants and tennis shoes. Linda has blonde, wavy hair, and is wearing white capri pants, tennis shoes and a sleeveless shirt with large, multicolored leopard spots.
Madelyn Beck
Jack and Linda Mueller think it's good for a public lands agency to have a headquarters near the land it serves.

Jack Mueller was sitting outside a coffee shop in Grand Junction on a hot afternoon.

“I always thought it was a great move for the city,” he said. “I don't know what to think of the people who are saying ‘we don't want to move (to Grand Junction).’”

His wife 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 think the same and hope headquarters stays, 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.

But others aren't so sure.

Miranda Purcell says 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 them away from decision-makers in Washington, D.C., “and removing them from the conversation. So I don't know which one I agree with.”

Miranda Purcell sits smiling in a metal chair while holding the leash of her dog, Hoosier. Purcell's chair is facing left, but her body is facing towards the camera. She has brown hair and is wearing a green t-shirt, jean shorts and sandals. Hoosier is a medium-sized dog and is on the lower, left side of the picture with a red collar. She has dark brown ears and face and a coat that are tan and white. She has white paws.
Madelyn Beck
Miranda Purcell holds the leash of her dog Hoosier on a sunny day in Grand Junction.

One thing is for certain: Keeping the headquarters here would be an economic boon to the area, especially if it includes all 41 jobs the BLM initially planned to transfer. It could potentially bring in $11 million annually, $9 million in jobs alone, according to an analysis by 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 Chamber of Commerce.

Schwenke said the city used to move with the booms and busts of fossil fuel markets, but now, they depend more on tourism, health care and advanced manufacturing.

But a diversified economy hasn’t totally spared Grand Junction from hardship.

“I could not foresee the recession of 2008 that, for our community, lasted 10 years,” Schwenke said.

Right after things were looking up, the pandemic slowed things down again. Now they’re seeing more people move to Grand Junction and more tourists, but it’s also the start of a very early fire season.

The picture focuses on Diane Schwenke's face. She has blonde and grey hair in a short bob with a side part. She has pink lipstick on, golden hoop earings and is wearing a red top with pink flowers, blue birds and green foliage.
Madelyn Beck
Diane Schwenke says having the headquarters for a federal agency would boost the town's profile, possibly attracting more business.

Schwenke said having a BLM headquarters means more than just jobs, though. It could attract more businesses.

“Being the site of a federal agency headquarters actually kind of puts us on the map and elevates our profile,” she said.

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 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 disagrees. He thinks the BLM needs a headquarters where lawmakers and other agencies are.

“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, she was pretty 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.

But back in Grand Junction, Chris Brown, owner of the bike shop Brown Cycles, thinks we don’t have to decide between D.C. or Grand Junction.

The picture focuses on Chris Brown's face and shoulders. He has blue eyes, slightly scruffy brown eyebrows and mottled white and red complexion with a redder nose. He has dirty blonde hair cut short and is wearing a green collared shirt with thin white stripes. There are bicycles hanging from the wall behind him.
Madelyn Beck
Chris Brown owns Brown Cycles in Grand Junction. He understands the reasons to keep and move the BLM headquarters, but thinks there's another option: split the office in two.

“Realistically, a split probably makes more sense,” he said. “You don't have to be, you know, sitting next to somebody to govern and manage things.”

Brown said that way, 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, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, 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.