An internal draft document reviewed by CNN reveals how individual offices within the Bureau of Land Management will be spread out across states and time zones under the agency’s proposed reorganization plan, putting federal workers who once worked together in Washington thousands of miles apart.
The plan has left some officials, lawmakers and former bureau employees confused about the agency’s goals in moving certain positions out West.
The agency, which has an annual budget of more than $1 billion and manages over 245 million acres of public land, is moving its headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado. The Bureau of Land Management headquarters has been in Washington for decades, with state-level offices spread across the country.
As a part of this reorganization, the bureau will move some people who work in the Washington headquarters to the new headquarters in Colorado, but it will also move some headquarter-level workers to state offices. Others in the Washington headquarters will be moved to state offices to perform state-level jobs.
The internal draft document shows plans to move employees within the same office, like the FOIA office, which handles Freedom of Information Act requests for the agency, to different states. It also shows that some employees who work closely with Congress or other DC-based agencies are being moved to the other side of the country.
Employees will be notified of their relocation postings this week, according to the Bureau of Land Management’s acting director, William Perry Pendley. The exact number of employees that will be impacted by this move is unclear, but critics say these relocations are a thinly veiled attempt to break up the federal bureaucracy, while the administration feels the moves are long overdue.
Ed Shepard, former Bureau of Land Management assistant director and president of the Public Lands Foundation, a nonpartisan advocacy group made up of former Bureau of Land Management employees, told CNN the change is “going to be very effective at dismantling the agency. That’s going to be a consequence of these things.”
Shepard, who worked at the agency for 38 years – 11 of which he spent in the Washington headquarters, told CNN that 97% of bureau staff is already based outside of the District of Columbia, primarily in 12 Western states. The Washington headquarters makes up only 3% of the agency’s total staff.
“When they’re working on a policy or new regulation, these people have to work together closely, and not just by picking up a telephone,” Shepard said. “When you’re not together, sometimes you forget to talk.”
When CNN asked the Bureau of Land Management and the Interior Department about the internal document, the agencies did not address the document directly or answer questions about why certain offices were being split among different states.
“Under our proposal, every Western state will gain additional staff resources,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement. “Shifting critical leadership positions and supporting staff to western states – where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located – is not only a better management system, it is beneficial to the interest of the American public.”
Decentralization as reorganization
Pendley told the House Natural Resources Committee that 222 jobs will be moving to “perform headquarters functions” in state offices, and 74 jobs will be moved to state offices to perform state jobs. The document shows that some offices now located in the DC headquarters are not simply moving to the new headquarters in Colorado but are being split internally among different offices out West.
The FOIA office, which has been based at the headquarters level in Washington, will be split internally among three Western locations.
The FOIA records administrator, who, according to the position’s listed job description, “serves as the lead records administrator and Freedom of Information Act coordinator,” will be relocated to New Mexico – more than 1,000 miles from Washington. Five FOIA specialists are also moving, but not to the same place. Three will be more than 1,100 miles from the records administrator and more than 2,500 miles from Washington in Reno, Nevada. Another two will be more than 2,000 miles from Washington in Salt Lake City.
Several jobs that include working with Capitol Hill and White House offices in their listed job descriptions are being moved to different offices out West.
A senior public affairs role is being moved to Salt Lake City. One of those positions works closely with the “DOI Office of Communications,” according to its job description. An “international affairs specialist” – which serves as the Bureau of Land Management liaison to the Department of Interior and Department of State – is also being moved to Salt Lake City.
Three legislative affairs specialist roles are being moved to Reno. Legislative affairs specialists work directly with congressional staff and members on agency policy and issues.
Shepard said he doesn’t “understand some of those moves, particularly moving legislative affairs people to Reno.”
They are “pretty much solely working with staff up in Congress,” he said.
Lawmakers split on the decision
The bureau’s move, first announced in July, is the latest disruption for federal workers. Two departments within the US Department of Agriculture made up of more than 500 federal workers – the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture – will move to Kansas City this year, as well.
The bureau and the USDA have publicly argued that the relocation will cut costs by moving employees to areas with lower costs of living than Washington. But many who oppose the move point to comments made by Mick Mulvaney in August at a Republican Party event in South Carolina.
“Now it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget director and acting White House chief of staff, said at the time, according to The Washington Post. “I know that because a lot of them work for me. And I’ve tried. And you can’t do it. But simply saying to the people, you know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside the liberal haven and move you out into the real part of the country, and they quit. What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”
Rep. Karen Bass told CNN last week that the bureau’s decision is “just another egregious example of how the Trump administration wants to unravel different protections that we’ve had for many, many years.”
“So let’s just get rid of all federal employees. So the way we’re going to do that is move, and then give them a very short period of time in which they have to get their lives together, which is just another way of firing everybody,” the California Democrat said.
House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, argued that the reorganization “appears to be nothing more than a poorly veiled attempt to dismantle a federal agency.”
Some GOP lawmakers have defended the decision.
“We are still screwing up how we’re administering lands because we are thousands of miles away,” House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, told CNN last week. “The idea is moving it out there where the people are, where the land is. That makes total sense.”
Sen. Cory Gardner told CNN last week the idea that these jobs can be done only in Washington is an “attack on the West.”
“This is going to result in better decision making. Ninety-nine percent of the acres are west of the Mississippi River,” the Colorado Republican said. “I believe in Colorado, I support Colorado, and I think they are really smart people who do a great job, and it’s shameful to think that only Washington can do this.”
Pendley said moving employees to state offices to perform both headquarter-level and state-level jobs is a bonus for the states.
“Every Western state will benefit from an infusion of experts,” he said.
The Bureau of Land Management move comes at a time when the federal workforce is facing upheaval on several fronts.
The Commerce Department is undergoing two internal investigations after reports came out that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees were being told to support the President’s statements that Hurricane Dorian’s projected path included Alabama, and the USDA has faced its own reorganization.
When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced his department’s move in June, employees stood and turned their backs on him.
Out of roughly 250 Economic Research Service researchers and economists at the USDA reassigned to Kansas City, 69% said they would not move, according to a survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees. Out of 294 employees in a different USDA office, 71% said they would not move, according to the survey.
The USDA recently announced that workers who are declining to move can stay on at the agency longer because it fears a worker shortage could disrupt its ability to complete its mission.
During a congressional hearing last week, Pendley said the Bureau of Land Management has not taken any survey of the number of employees who plan to leave rather than relocate. Because it did not conduct any survey or cost-benefit analysis about the reorganizations before moving forward with its plans, there is no way to know how many employees will leave the bureau as a result of their reassignments.
CNN’s Lauren Fox contributed to this story.