U.S. to move public lands agency to Colorado from Washington

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management trail marker is shown along the Arch Canyon trail in Bears Ears National Monument, New Mexico, U.S., October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

(Reuters) – The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will move its headquarters to Colorado from Washington, officials said on Tuesday, sparking ire from conservationists who said the decision would weaken the agency dedicated to managing the country’s vast public lands.

The Department of Interior, which oversees BLM, announced the move in letters to key congressional committees. The decision will save taxpayers $50 million on things like real estate, salaries and travel expenses and will locate BLM officials closer to the areas they serve, officials said.

BLM is charged with overseeing programs on vast swathes of public lands including oil and gas drilling, cattle grazing and recreation. Most BLM land is in the Western United States.

The BLM will move 27 Washington-based staff to a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado, and an additional 222 positions will be relocated to other agency offices in the U.S. West close to where their work is needed.

For instance, staff working on the agency’s timber program would move to Oregon, and those working on rangelands and grazing would move to Idaho.

Conservation groups were quick to say the move amounted to a dismantling of the agency by moving it away from the place where decisions are made. Such groups have been critical of the Trump administration’s efforts to open up more public lands to oil and gas drilling and to loosen environmental policies aimed at protecting federal lands.

In a statement, Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jennifer Rokala called the move “another cynical attempt to drain the Interior Department of expertise and career leadership. Our public lands deserve an agency that is effectively coordinating with the Interior Department more broadly, and with Congress.”

On a conference call with reporters, BLM officials said such critics lacked an understanding of how the agency’s business is conducted.

“Most of the work of the bureau gets done at the state and local level,” said Joe Balash, Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management. Experienced BLM employees who choose to relocate to the West will be able to mentor a new generation of BLM staff, he added.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Marguerita Choy

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