Opinion: If you want to neuter a crucial federal agency, this is how you do it

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is trying to weaken the federal Bureau of Land Management by moving key leadership jobs to the West, far from Capitol Hill.
(J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Imagine you’re in charge of a federal department that has to deal regularly with members of Congress and other Washington, D.C.-based agencies to fight over the budget, craft regulations and conduct other basic tasks involved in running part of the government.

Now, where would you opt to base, say, your legislative affairs deputy, your top regulatory analyst and your international affairs specialist?

Washington? Well, yes, that makes sense. And, in fact, that’s where those jobs in the Bureau of Land Management are based now.

But not for long.

In what passes for wisdom in the Trump administration, the Interior Department — according to a report in the Hill — intends to move BLM’s “legislative affairs deputy division chief,” whose job it is to “represent the bureau’s mission, policies and activities to members of Congress,” to Reno.

Yes, that Reno. The one in Nevada.

At least the legislative affairs person will be able to hang out with the “senior policy analyst,” who “serves as the division’s senior analyst and regulatory lead,” heads “regulatory writing teams” and “drafts and analyzes various policy documents.” Because that job, too, apparently is getting shipped to Reno.

Oh, and the international affairs specialist job will be based in Salt Lake City, which is not known for its concentration of foreign officials seeking meetings with top federal policymakers.


This is nonsense.

The reported moves are part of a broader effort by the Interior Department, under former industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, to move BLM jobs ostensibly so they can better manage the lands they oversee.

Never mind that the vast majority of BLM jobs are already near those lands; the D.C.-based jobs are, in fact, right where they need to be for the tasks associated with them.

In reality, the moves are an effort to weaken the BLM by moving key positions far from the power circles in Washington. There’s a lot at stake: BLM controls 248 million acres of public land and administers some 700 million acres of federal subsurface mineral rights.

And it’s no coincidence that the new head of BLM is William Perry Pendley, a veteran activist who has long advocated for the federal government to cede control of public lands to state and local officials who, in their own humble opinions, know best how to manage the land.

Actually, they don’t. For the most part, they want access to public lands, most of it in the West (including large swaths of California), so they can sell off chunks of it, auction off leases in other areas for drilling and mining leases, and otherwise despoil vistas that are part of our national heritage for the sake of a few short-term bucks.

As the Times Editorial Board noted last month, these moves will rob the BLM “of institutional memory and weaken its ability to work with Congress and other agencies” in part because career experts likely won’t accept the transfers.

But by moving such key positions so far from the corridors of power, the administration curbs their influence on Capitol Hill, making it harder for the agency tasked with managing so much of our collectively owned lands to do its job.

Which, it’s becoming abundantly clear, is the real plan afoot here.