Ninety-nine percent of federally-held land lies west of the Mississippi River, but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is still headquartered in Washington D.C.
As the country ponders the agency’s exodus from the capitol, Grand Junction has emerged as a prime candidate for its new headquarters.
There’s a lot of excitement, uncertainty and a surprising amount of disagreement surrounding the still-evolving plan for the move.
Last month, about 20 minutes into an episode of Major League Liberty – an online conservative talk show – the fervently conservative Weld County Sheriff, Steve Reams, expressed his support for a greater BLM presence in the west.
“At the end of the day, I think having the feds out in this area and actually interacting with the people that are using that land makes perfect sense,” he said, right after cautiously defending Cliven Bundy – the infamous, violently anti-government Nevada rancher.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) made a similar point about 30 minutes into an episode of the Mandy Connell Show on KOA News Radio a few days prior. He’s been working to move the BLM west since 2016.
Grand Junction – a place “surrounded by public lands, surrounded by public lands states” would likely beget “people who have a deeper understanding of the decisions they make and how it impacts their communities,” Gardner said on the show.
What’s more, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) is another strong supporter of the BLM’s move to the Western Slope. In fact, last March he and Gardner sent former Secretary Ryan Zinke a note urging his support for a new BLM headquarters in Grand Junction.
Despite its backing from Bennet and Gardner, support for the project is far from universal.
“There’s no particular advantage to having a headquarters in the American West if your concern is being accessible and close to the people who are concerned about public lands,” said Patty Limerick, who heads the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for the American West.
Furthermore, Limerick sees the decentralized nature of the BLM as an outright experiment whose outcome could ultimately be detrimental to the people the bureau is supposed to serve.
On the Ground…
With close to 150,000 people in its metro area, Grand Junction is the largest settlement between Denver and Salt Lake City. It’s also the largest city in Colorado not on the Front Range.
Furthermore, at least 70 percent of the land in Mesa County – where Grand Junction sits – is publicly held.
Diane Schwenke – the CEO and president of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce – says the city has a strong, diversifying economy, premiere access to outdoor recreation and home prices that seem microscopic in comparison with those on the Front Range or other urban centers in the West.
“The prospect of seeing the headquarters – or at least part of the headquarters… located in the West, and particularly in Grand Junction, is something we as a chamber support,” Schwenke said.
In her eyes, Grand Junction is already a thriving regional hub. In addition to the 11,000 students currently attending Colorado Mesa University, the city’s medical facilities serve 25 different counties across Colorado and Utah.
“We already have the Bureau of Land Management in Grand Junction,” Schwenke said.
There’s “a field office and a district office, but what we’re looking it is the potential for some headquarters jobs moving to Grand Junction,” she said.
Schwenke doesn’t see Grand Junction’s cultural and recreational amenities as all that far behind those in the West’s major urban centers.
She said residents are never “more than ten minutes away from outdoor recreation opportunities,” and that the dozens of wineries and microbreweries have endowed the town with a cosmopolitan vibe of sorts.
On top of everything, Grand Junction remains affordable, compared to other metro areas.
“The median price of a home in Grand Junction right now is $250,000,” Schwenke said, “which is half what it is in the Denver metro area and well below even some of the Salt Lake and Las Vegas properties.”
“Time-wise, what we’re hearing is that a decision on this is going to be made sometime in late December,” said Schwenke, who has been in touch with the offices of Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) and Gardner as well as the Department of the Interior.
“This is an evolving project,” she said, “so I think we’re not talking about the entire headquarters moving. The latest estimates I’ve seen is maybe 50 percent,” which would bring up to around 200 employees.
“It would be similar to getting a fairly middle-sized manufacturing facility in the community,” she said.
Much of the city’s motivation to host the bureau comes down to economics.
Schwenke said the stable government jobs would aid the ongoing occupational diversification of Grand Junction in addition to facilitating the ongoing expansion of the town’s economy.
Still, Schwenke says there’s little clarity surrounding the plan.
“At one point they were talking about upwards of three-hundred” BLM employees moving west, she said. “Now they’ve talked about 200,” or “a staged move of 30 to 50.”
The Geographic Problems…
Grand Junction as the new BLM headquarters was an obvious conclusion for Schwenke, but Limerick, who said her work includes quite a bit of air travel, sees transportation as a glaring issue for a prospective BLM headquarters in Grand Junction.
“The one thing everyone talks about is the air service, and that is, I think, something that’s fairly easily overcome,” Schwenke said. “Washington D.C. is already one of our top ten destinations, and we have a community effort to add more direct flights.”
Schwenke also believes that the increased demand for travel to D.C. a new federal headquarters would bring would eventually lead to more direct flights between Grand Junction and the capitol.
“But even if that didn’t happen,” she said, “there are like sixteen different flight combinations out of Grand Junction where you are one stop,” from D.C.
Limerick said the idea of moving the BLM west to bridge the distance between bureaucrats and the people they serve is inherently misguided.
“There’s no center to the West,” she said, and that “any discussion about moving headquarters should begin with a recognition of how all roads lead to Rome.”
Or in this case, Reagan National and Dulles.
Still, Limerick understands why the conclusion seems obvious.
Throughout the American settlement of the West, she said the region has consistently been surrounded by fanciful plans to connect its major settlements and the spaces between them.
Most of them never panned out.
“As soon as you go to ground level, it doesn’t make sense, because the West is a vast, vast spread of land.
“It has roads and it has airports” now, Limerick said, “but it has not eliminated the intractability of the spaces of the West.
“For better or worse – and there’s certainly better and worse,” Limerick said, “Washington D.C. as the center of the Federal government does mean there’s lots of flights.
“There are few of those services at airports like Grand Junction,” she said.
“In fact, it’s kind of dramatic how much harder it is to get a flight – and an affordable flight, too – at smaller airports.”
The Conceptual Problem…
Limerick’s objections to the project transcend the logistical issues. She sees the potential complete decentralization of the BLM – which Schwenke regarded as a likely outcome – as imbuing federal lands with an even greater sense of uncertainty.
Limerick characterized the BLM – particularly its organizational structure defined in large part by local offices – as a giant experiment in the decentralization of federal agencies.
“The BLM has – I guess you could say always been, but is certainly now very decentralized,” she said.
“To say we’re going to further decentralize this and eliminate the one place where BLM employees and officials have to converge and occasionally check in with each other,” would be taking the experiment to a whole other level, she said.
In the event of a natural disaster or some other kind of emergency, Limerick said it would probably be far harder for an agency without a central headquarters to coordinate an effective response.
Furthermore, she characterized the instability from the move itself and the possibility of a fully decentralized BLM as inherently bad for business in the rural West.
Limerick said the lack of a steady regime will be particularly problematic for those making their livings off or in relation to BLM-held lands.
This inconsistency is already sort of a constant in those industries because the presidency changes hands at least every eight years, but Limerick thinks a decentralized BLM will lead to even greater uncertainty.
“Businesses, ranchers, miners and loggers,” Limerick said, “often say that what they need is something they can count on.”
These changes would make it harder to count on the BLM. At least for a time.
Still, people across the West are excited for the move.
“I think, philosophically, the idea of having the top policy makers in the organization being closer to the lands they manage makes a lot of sense,” Schwenke said.
Many Coloradans – including both of the state’s otherwise polarized senators – would be completely on board with that statement.
Featured photo of the Book Cliffs in Mesa County near Grand Junction — courtesy of Sean Davis/Wikimedia