Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland may soon hold in her hands the fate of the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters in Grand Junction. Her noncommittal remarks on the matter this week gave solace to both friends and foes of a 2019 relocation decision.
Haaland, a Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico who would be the first Indigenous woman to hold a Cabinet position, told Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday that she will visit Grand Junction as she weighs whether to keep the headquarters there or return it to Washington, D.C.
“I will look forward to consulting more on this issue with you and I understand that we absolutely need to make sure that the staff members are — that we have a full team there at BLM,” Haaland said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.
After years of bipartisan lobbying by Colorado politicians and Grand Junction business groups, the Department of the Interior announced in July 2019 that it would move its headquarters to the Western Slope city and expand its presence at other non-D.C. offices, including one in Lakewood.
About 87% of the agency’s D.C.-based employees quit in response and environmental groups accused then-President Donald Trump of dismantling the agency that oversees the nation’s public lands. Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet, also a Democrat, have long supported the headquarters move and both said Wednesday that they welcome Haaland’s visit.
Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, which lobbied for the headquarters move, was pleased with Haaland’s pledge to visit Colorado.
“Do I think the BLM will remain in Grand Junction? I don’t know the answer to that,” Brown said. “I feel very good about the fact that we set a goal to have a meeting with (Haaland) … and she seems to be committed to doing that. I think we’re on the right track.”
Brown testified about the move before Haaland and other members of a U.S. House of Representatives committee in September 2019. At that time, Haaland sounded skeptical of the BLM’s decision, leading to concerns in Grand Junction that she would reverse the bureau’s move if confirmed as interior secretary. BLM is an agency within the Department of the Interior.
“There are real and valid questions about what (the Interior Department) should do about it,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, which opposed the move to Grand Junction. “Obviously you don’t want to just give these employees whiplash.”
“I think Haaland is going to ask the tough questions that need to be asked about the move,” he added. “That’s what she signaled in the hearing, in response to Senator Hickenlooper, essentially committing to a dialogue. I think that’s the exact appropriate response.”
Prentice-Dunn and Scott Braden, a Grand Junction-based director of the Colorado Wildlands Project and critic of the BLM move from D.C. to Colorado, believe the Grand Junction office should remain open as a western hub but not as the agency’s headquarters.
“We’re looking forward to secretary nominee Haaland leading all public land stakeholders in a conversation about the best path forward for agency headquarters,” Braden said.
But on Wednesday, the Colorado Republican Party accused Bennet and Hickenlooper of failing to stand up for Colorado by supporting Haaland, whom it called an extremist. The senators should instead block Haaland’s nomination until she publicly commits to keeping the headquarters in Grand Junction, the party said.
“Colorado and Grand Junction are worth fighting for,” said Colorado GOP spokesman Joe Jackson. “As Colorado’s current voices in the U.S. Senate, they need to fight to ensure that the BLM stays closest to the millions of acres they manage.”
Bennet told reporters Wednesday that blocking or delaying Haaland’s nomination would not be productive. Instead, he wants to talk with Haaland and President Joe Biden’s administration “in a collaborative way” about why Grand Junction is the best location.
“I expect to be able to show her a really compelling reason for us to keep it there,” he said.
And when Haaland does make her eventual trip to the city, Brown plans to introduce her to employees who moved from D.C., purchased homes and settled in.
“If they (at the Interior Department) spend a year looking at it and deciding what is the best outcome for BLM and they ultimately decide it’s not Grand Junction, I’d be OK with that,” Brown said. “… It’s a knee-jerk reaction I think we’re all trying to avoid.”
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