Can Grand Junction Save Itself by Becoming the Next Home for the Bureau of Land Management?
As talk of relocating federal agencies to the areas they most directly serve has gained steam, a Colorado town is making a push to house the Department of the Interior’s BLM.
GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado — Perhaps befitting of a city linked to Colorado’s Grand Valley, Grand Junction has been stuck in a rut. Even as western cities like Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah, have boomed, the Great Recession long hovered over this town of 62,000. An economic malaise in Mesa County, in which the city lies, has contributed to some of the state’s highest suicide rates.
Grand Junction is ringed by the stunning red rock canyons of the Colorado National Monument, but hasn’t emerged as a tourist destination. Despite having a four-year college, it’s not seen as an economic hub; a robust oil and natural gas economy faces a rocky future amid the state’s push to renewable energy. Even as jobs have come back, Grand Junction may never get back to pre-recession levels.
But the city has a plan to put itself on the map: convince the Department of the Interior to relocate the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management there.
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has repeatedly said his agency is building a business case for moving the BLM headquarters west, relocating upwards of 300 federal employees. The department has earmarked $60 million to study the move, with a decision expected this fall, sparking an Amazon HQ2-style competition among cities like Boise, Idaho, Tucson, Arizona, and Ogden, Utah—albeit one without competing tax breaks and economic incentives.
Boosters like Colorado Senator Cory Gardner have pitched it as a way to get bureaucrats closer to the land they manage; in June, Bernhardt told the Western Governors Association there would be “great value in delegating greater accountability to the front lines of our departments.” Critics see an agenda to sideline them from decision-making. But for cities like Grand Junction, the BLM move is an economic stimulus, one that would mean construction of a new headquarters, hundreds of stable government jobs, visits from lobbyists, and national attention.
Robin Brown, executive director of the non-profit development agency Grand Junction Economic Partnership, says even discussing bringing in the BLM has jolted the city’s “poor self-esteem,” and started a conversation about what Grand Junction wants to be.
“I like to say that we don’t have an identity crisis. We don’t have any identity at all,” says Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce president Diane Schwenke. Now Grand Junction is going all in, with the hope that the BLM can elevate it beyond what Schwenke calls ” the West’s best-kept secret.”
Grand Junction is already largely defined by its public lands: 74 percent of the surrounding Mesa County is controlled by the federal government, and the fossil fuel production and recreation in those lands have long been the backbone of the economy. Brown has fueled the town’s recovery by recruiting outdoor-focused businesses like bike rack company RockyMounts. While the economy isn’t back at pre-recession levels, job growth was up 3 percent in 2018 over the previous year, and permits for residential construction went up 23 percent, a sign of a growing population.
City development officials see the BLM as a big prize, one that could bring an economic boost that a sportswear company never could.
Even in a county where 64 percent of residents voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, the thought of bringing in the federal government, a conservative boogeyman, is appealing. County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, who has recently been spending her time trying to repeal Colorado’s bill ditching the electoral college, says that the county already works well with their local BLM office—”most people around here know and like the BLM because they use BLM land”—and bringing them in would help Grand Junction set the tone for government policy.
The city has launched an advertising blitz. In a $25,000 campaign, the town produced what was essentially a tourism video, with shots of enthusiastic fishers and bikers and a smiling endorsement from Gardner and Senator Michael Bennet from the United States Capitol. Brown’s office made “scrapbooks” of a trip to Grand Junction, with highlights like a winery label and a trail map, and mailed them to Interior employees. Visiting politicians are taken to Hot Tomato, a pizza joint in neighboring Fruita popular with mountain bikers, and boosters are ready to talk about the low cost of living (average single-family home price: $273,545). The local airport is negotiating a direct flight to D.C.
The effort gets to a core question about Grand Junction’s identity: For a town long defined by sports and local peaches, is becoming a western business arm of the government really an appealing identity? Bringing in remote tech workers who knock off at 3 p.m. to go biking is one thing; bureaucrats used to wearing suits aren’t traditional for the Western Slope.
Politicians and business leaders in the town are aligned behind the move; one resident even described it to me as the town netting a “cool” government agency. Still, there’s a segment that doesn’t want to see the town change.
I met Steve Allard, 68, at the Grand Junction farmers’ market, which stretched more than four city blocks and featured performances by a hula hoop troupe. Allard moved here 19 years ago to embrace a small-town lifestyle, and now the town is “growing by leaps and bounds more than it needs to.” He says bringing in the BLM could be good for the town, but not for him.
“We tried to keep this place a secret,” Allard says. “Now people are moving here with their big city values.”
There’s also a fierce anti-BLM strain in the region, best exemplified by the Cliven Bundy standoff in 2014. The BLM’s power to set grazing fees, restrict permits, and control land that some conservatives see as rightfully theirs can make it agency non grata in some parts.
But even that hasn’t deterred conservatives like Pugliese: That attitude, she said, “is going to be prevalent regardless of where the BLM goes.”
Patty Limerick, director of the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado–Boulder, says that bringing Washingtonians would inherently change the nature of a city, even if they’re not the stereotypical “swivel chair bureaucrats.”
“How could it not? The only way it wouldn’t is if people always left their work in the office, but we know that’s not realistic,” Limerick says.
“Maybe the hidden agenda of this is to experiment with the population,” she jokes. “If we fan Washingtonians out around the country and have them be friends and uncles and aunts … maybe that’s what gets people over their anti-government attitudes.”
Of course, not just Grand Junction would change: Moving the BLM would also constitute a culture shift for the government. Only a few federal agencies have their headquarters outside of the D.C. metro area, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and the Railroad Retirement Board in Chicago.
The BLM already has 12 regional offices, where most of the staff work, although they often cycle through Washington for a few years. Don Simpson, the former BLM state director for Wyoming, says that helped not just bring remote experience to the Beltway, but also a political mindset to the farther flung offices.
“People are more well rounded. They understand the resource issues and the political ramifications for both the state and the country,” says Simpson, who is now vice president of the Public Lands Foundation, a coalition of current and retired BLM employees. “In the end, that means better employees, better management, better decisions.”
As technology makes it easier for remote offices to stay in touch with D.C., there’s been increasing talk about whether it makes sense to disperse the government. It could save on rent and reconnect workers to the people they serve. The U.S. will likely never approach the likes of South Africa, which has separate capitals for each branch of government, but David Fontana, a research professor at George Washington University Law School, says there is a trend across industries to “decentralize,” and the government should be no different. In part, as he wrote in an essay for the Washington Post Magazine last year, as D.C. has become a “cool” city, it is “struggling to stay connected to the rest of America.”
Moving government away could help quell some dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy. “Anyone concerned about a concentration of power should be concerned about the concentration of power in a place,” he says.
While there’s been bipartisan talk about decentralizing the government, there can be a “drain the swamp” strain to it: A group of Tea Party congressmen in 2017 proposed relocating 90 percent of the workforce in a bill given the acronym the SWAMP Act.
Skeptics see bad omens in the recent announcement that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would move its Economic Research Service to Kansas City. While it’s been touted as a way to put agriculture research in the Midwest, union officials have charged that it’s retaliation for publishing reports critical of administration policies. Employees turned their back on secretary Sonny Perdue when he announced the move; a survey from the American Federal Government Employees union found that nearly 70 percent of the office would rather leave the government than move.
There are fears that relocating agencies removes the protection for bureaucrats making controversial decisions. The BLM handles fossil fuel extraction, mining, and ranching, and is the agency in charge of decisions to, say, shut down oil and gas drilling on federal land. Would a BLM director be able to make that move if they’re coaching oil workers’ kids in little league?
“I think it’s an effort to continue to … put westerners and local elected officials in the driver’s seat,” says Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Reorganization is good to ponder, but we also need to make sure we’re upholding the BLM as an agent of all Americans.”
Simpson says a BLM move could be as disruptive as the USDA’s one, and could hollow out the agency’s power. The director wouldn’t be able to duck into a last-minute budget meeting or make a policy pitch directly to the White House. Putting the inherently political BLM director in the west wouldn’t make them more accessible.
“I don’t see the secretary buzzing around in a pick-up truck to talk to some rural county commissioners,” Simpson says. “It’s not like they’re somehow more connected to Alaskans just because they’re not in DC.”
But if power is going to move, Grand Junction figures, why not us? What better way for the government to help out than by actually bringing an economic stimulus to small western cities like this?
Even if Grand Junction is passed over, boosters like Brown say that just being nominated has been its own form of stimulus.
“This is such a great place to do business, but we have not done a good job telling that story,” she says. “Even if we never get the BLM headquarters here, a whole lot more people know about that.”