Guy Farmer: Why is the BLM based in Washington, D.C.?

If more than 99 percent of America’s public lands are in Nevada and the West, why is the headquarters of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages those public lands, located thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C.?

That’s the question I posed last week to my erudite Carson City friend Bob Stewart, who served for two years in Washington as BLM’s public affairs chief.

“Access is everything,” Stewart replied. “An agency like BLM would be left in the budget dust without a presence in Washington.”

That’s the right answer, but it also illustrates an obvious problem: our federal government is too centralized in Washington, which is mostly disconnected from much of the rest of the country.

Can you imagine some senior bureaucrat sitting at a desk in Washington making final decisions about public lands in Nevada? Think about 80,000 “free spirits” in the Black Rock Desert or about whether the feds will turn our state into the nation’s nuclear waste dump. The decision makers aren’t out here where the action is. Instead, they’re living the good life in Washington, which is usually immune from economic downturns because everyone is on the federal dole.

Stewart, better known here as ex-Gov. Mike O’Callaghan’s press secretary, and I have both lived in the Greater Washington area so we’ve experienced life in our federal enclave up close and personal. I spent about three years in D.C. during my 28-year foreign service career, and couldn’t get out of there fast enough after I retired.

Let’s return to our original question and ask why BLM is based in Washington. The Trump administration actually considered a plan to move BLM headquarters to Colorado, but Washington-based bureaucrats raised a ruckus. Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley explained what happened in an informative op-ed piece he wrote for “The Hill,” a respected news website.

“This kerfuffle is about people who seek to retain their special access... to meet with top BLM officials far from the lands they manage,” Pendley wrote, echoing my friend Bob Stewart.

The “people” Pendley was writing about are well-paid D.C.-based lobbyists and representatives of special interest groups seeking money and favors from the feds. In other words, it’s a money-grubbing free-for-all thousands of miles away from the public lands and programs under discussion. Pendley offered the following surprising but true facts:

The BLM manages 88,000 wild horses and burros, mostly in Nevada, but the top officials who run that program are in Washington.

The BLM leases land for energy development in New Mexico’s Permian Basin, the preferred area for these activities, but program managers are in Washington.

The BLM operates $1 billion worth of alternative energy programs in California, but the officials who supervise those projects are in Washington. And on and on it goes...

“The vitriol leveled against our decision (to de-centralize the BLM) has been mind-boggling,” Pendley wrote. “Eleven members of Congress with fewer than 2,500 acres of public lands in their districts assert that BLM’s senior staff should remain in Washington.” Go figure!

According to Pendley, two former BLM directors who want to keep agency headquarters in D.C. wrote an op-ed “that contains untruths, innuendo and material misrepresentations,” including the claim that the Trump administration is trying “to destroy the agency from the inside.” All of this because the Interior Department has transferred Pendley and other senior BLM officials to new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado. Kudos to our Northern Nevada congressman, Republican Mark Amodei, for supporting those transfers.

Bottom line: Let’s move BLM headquarters out of Washington.

Guy W. Farmer is the Appeal’s senior political columnist.


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