|September 23, 2019|
Inside the Trump administration's chaotic dismantling of the federal land agency
|Early this month, workers at the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management gathered to discuss a Trump administration plan that would force some 200 people to uproot their lives or find other jobs.|
With a vague plan that keeps changing as officials describe it --- and no guarantees that Congress would fully fund their relocations --- the employees were being detailed to distant locations in the West like Grand Junction, Colorado, and Reno, Nevada. Many career staff saw the move as part of a wider Trump administration effort to drive federal employees out of their jobs. Acting White House chief of staff Mike Mulvaney has described that approach as a "wonderful way to streamline government."
The hemorrhaging has already begun. After an hour of exasperated questions from employees, Steve Tryon, a deputy assistant director, told the room he had taken an assignment elsewhere in the Interior Department, the BLM's parent agency. The post, he explained, had a chance of leading to a permanent placement in Washington.
"I hope you can forgive me," he said to the crowd. "I have two kids in high school. One's a senior and one's a sophomore. If I don't get another job, I'm moving to Grand Junction or Denver without them. And that's that. That's my Plan B. Move to Denver without my family."
"It's not fun to be without your family," a colleague replied.
It was just one painful choice of many that will be made in coming months, as anticipated departures hollow out the agency that protects nearly 250 million acres of public lands and stands between oil and gas companies and the natural resources that can enrich them. The top BLM official, acting director William Perry Pendley, has offered contradictory accounts of who will be forced to move and how these changes will affect the agency's accountability to Congress and the public.
ProPublica reviewed internal memos and an accounting of which Washington jobs are being transferred to existing BLM offices in places like Reno, Salt Lake City, Utah, and the proposed new headquarters in Grand Junction. Employees, who formally learned of the plan two months ago, received assignment letters this week, detailing specific locations in the West, where most BLM properties are located.
Internal documents and recordings of staff meetings obtained by ProPublica, as well as interviews with 10 current BLM employees, show top officials expect the mandatory reassignments to lead to an exodus similar to one at the Department of Agriculture during the summer, when a forced relocation prompted more than 250 researchers in Washington to quit. It was the USDA move that prompted Mulvaney's comment on streamlining.
"Chaos is probably an understatement," said Elena Daly, a former assistant director at the bureau, who told ProPublica the BLM shakeup is "absolutely" designed to hobble an important federal function.
"If you're going to be relocated in Reno and part or all of your job is coordinating with Congress, how do you do that?," said Daly, who worked at the agency 25 years.
Pendley and other supporters of the relocation effort, including Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, say it's needed because staffers in Washington aren't connected to the far-flung lands they oversee. In response to a series of detailed questions, BLM referred ProPublica to Pendley's testimony, which states that the agency "will ensure that every affected employee receives necessary information before being required to make any decision." It went on to say that "nearly every western state will realize significant benefits from this reorganization."
Pendley told a congressional committee last week that key positions, including those providing information to Congress and the public, would remain in Washington. But according to internal records, many of the transplanted positions play important roles in assisting with congressional oversight, civil rights issues and assessing potential environmental impacts when the BLM leases federal land to private businesses.
Between mid-July, when staff received their first briefing about the move after two years of rumors, and September, before anyone received relocation assignments, 11 employees quit their jobs. A document circulated this week among top BLM officials said, "We anticipate additional employees will depart."
In private, senior officials have said that the so-called "realignment" is charging forward even though a Republican-controlled Congress only approved enough money to cover the initial stage of the move --- less than $6 million. The total amount needed to make the transition remains uncertain. Still, in meetings and written communications, leaders have told staff that future funding is all but guaranteed, pressuring employees to swiftly make major life decisions, such as selling homes or uprooting families. In a list of answers compiled in mid-July to address "likely employee questions," it says, "We anticipate the Congress will provide the FY 2020 funds for us to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the BLM through this relocation."
Recordings suggest that, should lawmakers oppose additional funding toward the realignment in 2020, there is no backup plan. Still, about 60 of the bureau's top officials expect to move into Interior's building, vacating the BLM's Washington headquarters in late 2020.
The few details being shared with staff or congressional committees are often contradictory, incomplete or unsupported, fueling skepticism from career staff and members of Congress.
"We're going to be fragmented in different states," said Michael Byrd, a middle-level contract manager who's worked at the BLM for nine years. "This whole plan is designed for us to be a failure."
Byrd, 56, told ProPublica he has no intention of moving to Colorado, where he was told his position is being moved. He's going to find another job.
Critics of the plan, including 30 former senior BLM staffers who signed a Sept. 5 letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt opposing the move, point out that 97 percent of the bureau's 10,000 employees are already dispersed throughout the West. The remaining 3 percent, they say, need to be near Congress and other federal branches they work closely with, such as the National Park and Fish and Wildlife services.
BLM employees have been repeatedly told the realignment will save money, but it is unclear how. An internal staff website that provides information about the move at one point asserted "the Department" has conducted a cost-benefit analysis "using the generally accepted form of financial analysis." It concludes, "The analysis demonstrates the benefits of moving the BLM West exceed the cost."
But elsewhere on the same page, the website says, "The total cost of the move is unknown at this time."
Department officials have not made the analysis public, despite staff entreaties, recordings show. ProPublica requested the analysis through the Freedom of Information Act in early September, but the bureau indicated it could take months to release it.
A lack of transparency and contradictory statements about the relocations have generated widespread distrust among BLM staff. Several times, exasperated employees grasped for answers that sympathetic career supervisors could not answer, according to recordings reviewed by ProPublica.
"People may be leaving their jobs, moving to places they don't want to go, selling their homes for things that might not ultimately result," said a female employee, who anonymously raised her voice at a recent meeting of 100 people. "And it leaves the agency and us in a really precarious spot, and so I want to know what authority does the department have to put their employees on the spot to make life choices right now when we see on the news that they haven't gotten clear discreet non-negotiable authorization to move forward?"
Leah Baker, the acting assistant director of resources and planning, struggled to respond. "I share that concern," she said. "I feel it personally. I think everybody in the room feels it personally." She added, "It's also been phrased as what about plan B? What happens if we get blocked somehow? What's our contingency for that? People are aware of that concern, but I don't know that there is a plan B."
While employees sought answers, Pendley privately acknowledged in a Sept. 9 letter to Bernhardt that many staffers will get pay cuts, based on a lower cost of living, and the BLM will "likely have difficulty hiring a similar group of experienced individuals" if employees quit.
In the same letter, Pendley recommended employees be offered a relocation incentive that could cost more than $4 million--- lump-sum payments in exchange for a two-year commitment to stay in their jobs. Pendley provided a list of reasons for Bernhardt to approve the request, such as, "Maintains consistent messaging that the Department of the Interior wants to work with employees." The request was approved three days later, emails show.
Pendley, a lawyer, became acting head of the BLM in late July. Before that, he spent much of his career arguing against the concept of public land. In a 2016 National Review article, he wrote that the "Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold."
Before a House committee last week, Pendley testified that BLM staff who work with Congress and process Freedom of Information Act requests - two critical windows into the bureau's work - would remain in Washington.
"I want to assure Congress that we will continue to do our core headquarters' functions, and by that I mean our Congressional affairs, our regulatory affairs, our public affairs, our budget function and our Freedom of Information Act requests," Pendley said.
"They're going to be in main Interior," he said, "a hallway away from the secretary of the Interior, the department secretary and other decision makers, and they'll be able to be responsive to the requests of Congress."
But records show that since at least July, the plan has called for scattering many of those positions across three time zones, thousands of miles from Washington.
ProPublica reviewed hundreds of job descriptions included in a roster of which positions will stay and which will go. About seven spots in the bureau's equal employment opportunity division will be moved to offices in Phoenix, Denver, or Grand Junction, records show. Four legislative affairs specialists are being asked to move to Reno.
Five people who process FOIA requests, and another who processes external data requests, are slated to be moved to various western cities.
At least seven senior positions whose descriptions include "interfaces significantly with Capitol Hill" are being moved to four western locales, records show.
The employee angst has spilled over into meetings, social media posts and email threads. Last week, dozens of employees met with organizers of a federal employee union to discuss fighting back against management.
Several staffers told ProPublica they could not move west because they have children in high schools, own their homes or are caring for ailing relatives.
In a mid-July meeting, one staffer, who did not identify herself, said, "A lot of us have two-family incomes. You're talking about the cost of living is less out West, but what about a job for your spouse or significant other? Are there jobs available for them as well?"
A senior official responded, "That's a consideration we'll have to make through the process."
No other federal agencies are based in Grand Junction, a town of about 65,00 people more than 250 miles from Denver and Salt Lake City.
Grand Junction is surrounded by federal land, but critics say while it's technically closer to BLM offices, it will be harder, not easier, to coordinate. For instance, there are currently no direct flights to other BLM offices in California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Montana.
Employees have until July 1, 2020, to accept, according to a recent implementation plan shared with BLM leadership. Anyone who does not comply by that date, or receive approval to delay relocating for personal reasons, "may be removed from Federal service for failing to accept a directed reassignment."