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Bureau Of Land Management Defends Move To Oil-And-Gas Town In Colorado


The idea had been floated for years, but President Trump is actually doing it. His administration is moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees drilling, mining and recreation on about a tenth of all land in the U.S. The agency's main office is now in a traditional oil and gas town in Colorado. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The BLM's new headquarters is a long way from Washington, D.C. - like, 1,900 miles to the small western Colorado city of Grand Junction. Out here, it's impossible to ignore you are surrounded by federal public land - the towering mesas, red rock canyons and the Colorado National Monument.

WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: Well, here's our lobby.

SIEGLER: The BLM's acting director, William Perry Pendley, caught flak after announcing the move because of the other tenants in this office building. There's Chevron upstairs and on the main floor right next to the BLM's glass entryway, Colorado's lead oil and gas lobbying firm.

You can't help but notice when you walk in. This office is right next to the Colorado Oil and Gas - the COGA office.

PENDLEY: And I'm just thankful it's not a marijuana dispensary.

SIEGLER: There's no dearth of pot shops around here. But the agency says it's also hard to find an office space where the industry doesn't have a presence. Grand Junction is surrounded by public lands that produce a lot of oil and natural gas.

PENDLEY: You know, frankly, let's be real. The oil patch can always afford to fly to Washington and sit down with somebody in Washington. The people who can't do it are farmers and ranchers and people from small community and county commissioners.

SIEGLER: In a crisp, white, Western shirt and black bolo tie, the 6-foot-5 Pendley says the General Services Administration found this space.

PENDLEY: I think the more important story is that we're out here. We're in the local community. And locals can come and see us. And we're just a, you know, short day's drive away from a lot of people who would never think of flying to Washington, D.C., to sit down with the director.

SIEGLER: For Pendley, this move is about decentralizing the U.S. government. The 74-year-old attorney spent most of his career at the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, where he challenged the BLM in cases representing miners, ranchers and, recently, Utah counties who fought Bears Ears National Monument. And some Westerners have long complained that the agency's leaders in Washington are disconnected with rural, resource-dependent communities. Here in Grand Junction, Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese pushed hard for the relocation.

ROSE PUGLIESE: You know, we have had great relationships with our local field offices. But ultimately, we have learned that the decisions are made in Washington, D.C., where they don't really even know where Mesa County is or the impacts of their decisions on our economy.

SIEGLER: Pugliese is a Republican. But there has been some bipartisan support - in Colorado, anyway - for the relocation, in part because the government is moving higher-paying leadership jobs out here. But mostly Democrats and many conservationists are fighting this. They lost a bid to strip funding for the move, but they did convince the Government Accountability Office to launch an inquiry.

CODY PERRY: A lot of people come here, like, walk dogs, get a bike ride in.

SIEGLER: Activist and environmental filmmaker Cody Perry is in Bangs Canyon. This is a popular BLM recreation site just at the edge of the Grand Junction sprawl.

PERRY: This is public lands that belongs to not just the people here in this county but all Americans.

SIEGLER: He points out that the vast majority of BLM staff is already living and working full time in the rural West. And he worries that removing leaders from the halls of power in D.C. will turn the agency into a backwater. But he thinks that's by design.

PERRY: I think it's an absolute effort to undermine and dismantle an agency. We're essentially removing institutionalized knowledge that is being basically dismantled by industry actors.

PENDLEY: That's crazy talk. There's no other way to say it.

SIEGLER: Back at the BLM's still mostly empty offices near the city's small airport, Acting Director William Perry Pendley says if anything, the BLM is staffing up to carry out the administration's public lands agenda.

PENDLEY: Why in the world would we fire people or dismantle an agency that's critical to accomplishing our goals, like energy independence, like increasing recreational access, like decreasing the likelihood of wildfires all across the West?

SIEGLER: But for the third straight year, President Trump has proposed cutting the agency's budget. Pendley hopes to have up to 40 staff here by the end of March, around the time that his temporary appointment expires.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Grand Junction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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