Bureau of Land Management turns 75

U.S. Bureau of Land Management workers perform a cadastral survey of the Western Slope of Colorado in 1960.

Diversity was never Grand Junction’s long suit. We knew that two years ago, but nobody wanted to say anything when the Trump administration moved the headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management to Colorado.

That was a daisy. The agency controls more than 245 million acres in 12 states, including 8.3 million acres on Colorado's surface, another 27 million in mineral rights and leases, plus recreation from Little Snake to the Royal Gorge.

Throw in grazing, timber, protected vistas and species, and the BLM is is the keeper of our national treasure and will be for generations to come, as it has since 1946.

The Biden administration is looking to move the BLM headquarters back to D.C., taking a few jobs and propriety back with it.

Last Friday, the Washington Post reported that the western maneuver steamrolled half of BLM's Black workforce, which made up only 3.5% before jobs were uprooted and transplanted 1,900 miles away in the shadow of the Grand Mesa.

Three years ago, when the idea was just percolating, I took a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park with Ryan Zinke, Trump's first interior secretary, to talk about the potential HQ move to Colorado. Diversity among stewards never came up.

Geographically the move made since. In every other way it didn't.

"If you’re a military commander, it makes sense to put your headquarters next to the fight,” the former Navy SEAL told me on an uphill walk, a few months before he became embroiled in unrelated scandals that cost him his government job. Maybe he empathized with those in Washington, D.C., destined to be squeezed out of their job, too.

Then-Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from the Eastern Plains, hoped scoring the head office would burnish his green bona fides to win a second term, which didn't pan out. Yet, at the same time, our Democratic senior senator Michael Bennet was elbow deep in it. Gov. Jared Polis, as Democrat as they come, was onboard, too.

“We are thrilled to welcome the Bureau of Land Management and their employees to the great state of Colorado," the governor said 28 months ago, when it was official. "As I stated to Secretary (David) Bernhardt many times, Grand Junction is the perfect location for the BLM because of community support, location closer to the land BLM manages, and the positive impact it will have on our western Colorado economy."

He added: “Hard to think of a better place to house the department responsible for overseeing our beloved public lands.”

Not everyone was shortsighted. Specifically, Scott Braden, the director of the Colorado Wildlands Project, who back in July helped put together a coalition of conservation groups and recreation industry types to try to restore the agency that's been disheveled in the Rockies.

"The last administration has left us with a damaged and demoralized agency, and we must rebuild," Braden and Co. wrote to Biden's interior secretary, Deb Haaland. "We believe there is a win-win solution for the BLM and for Colorado that involves maintaining both a national headquarters in Washington D.C. and a prominent western office in Grand Junction, where some agency leadership would be based."

Gardner's position aged frightfully, knowing now the toll it took on BLM employees of color, especially senior staff that is most needed and valued.

“Washington is infested with special interests,” Gardner said two years ago when the deal was struck. “You mean to tell me that BLM is insulated from that? They’re infested."

This collapse was foreseeable for those who bothered to look.

Mesa County is home to about 155,000 Coloradans, and Grand Junction itself is only about 59,000 people, slightly fewer than Castle Rock.

Grand Junction is 90% white and 0.64% Black, based on the county’s own count.

Metro Washington, D.C., is home to 6.3 million people, which is more than our entire state, with 45% white, 25% Black, 16% Hispanic and 10% Asian.

That’s what diversity looks like. That’s what attracting a thriving workforce and culturally rich community looks like, too.

In June, metro Washington had an unemployment rate of 5.4%. In Mesa County that month? Try 8%. 

Mesa County is a wonderful place to live, work and visit, no doubt. As representative government goes, BLM has fences to mend and bridges to build.

Polis talked about a Colorado for everyone as he sought the office three years ago. That promise was not kept when the BLM ditched D.C. and its commitment to diversity.

Losing the BLM headquarters is a bad thing for Colorado, but it's the right thing to do if we value people and share our treasure equally, rather than treating it like beans counted by bureaucrats.

Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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