President Joe Biden’s first day in office spurred to action a team of Mesa County “first responders” who are working to keep the federal Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Grand Junction amid concerns the new administration may move it back to Washington, D.C.
The local business leaders on Wednesday met to discuss plans to send a letter to the Biden administration and Colorado’s congressional delegation to underscore why the Western Slope city is the best place for the office, given its proximity to federal lands and the investment in rural communities.
The meeting of the Mesa County Economic Development First Responders shows how the community is “going to bat to save the headquarters office here,” said Diane Schwenke, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We are definitely going to fight to keep it,” Schwenke said. “... We are going to do everything we can to convince the new administration this was a good business decision.”
Former President Donald Trump announced the federal agency’s move to Colorado in July 2019, and now 41 employees work in the office after a $3 million renovation, Schwenke said.
The relocation process later drew criticism and came with concerns that it would weaken the bureau’s influence in Washington. But Republican and Democratic leaders in Colorado, including Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, supported the move.
However, the Biden team declined to respond to questions during the campaign about whether he would move the headquarters back to Washington, as the Trump campaign and former U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, argued on the 2020 campaign trail would happen.
Gardner was the chief cheerleader for the relocation. “I can think of no downside to this,” he told The Colorado Sun when the move to Colorado was announced. He based his 2020 re-election campaign in large part on the relocation, using it as a chief example of his influence over Trump and his ability to make gains for Colorado.
Bennet, a Democrat, told the Sun in an interview Monday that he had not talked to Biden’s team about the issue but he doesn’t think the relocation to Grand Junction lived up to its promise.
“I think the position that I’ve always had is: ‘We are happy to have it if it’s a serious commitment to move it in a way that BLM can play its role and provides the function that it provides,’” Bennet said. “I don’t think that the Trump administration remotely achieved that, and, for that reason, I think it’s possible that the Biden administration may decide just to leave it in Washington, D.C.”
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Rifle Republican whose district includes Grand Junction, is circulating a letter among Colorado’s congressional delegation and others in Congress that argues the headquarters should stay on the Western Slope.
“Any effort to move the bureau back to D.C. would have significant costs and could negatively impact employees, many of whom recently uprooted their lives and excitedly moved West,” the letter says.
U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who defeated Gardner in November, did not respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday. He wrote a letter in 2018, when he was governor, supporting the relocation.
Polis, a Democrat, demurred on the possibility of the BLM headquarters being moved back to Washington.
“The Biden team has not indicated one way or the other so it’s not clear this is even on the table or a discussion item,” said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis. “Gov. Polis looks forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration to reignite Colorado’s economy including on the Western Slope and building back stronger than before the pandemic.”
The main argument for keeping the bureau’s headquarters in Colorado is to ensure agency leaders are closer to the lands they oversee. Of the 244.4 million acres of lands managed by the agency, more than 99% are in western states and Alaska.
The number of jobs the BLM headquarters brought to Grand Junction is not huge in a workforce of 70,000. Still, the headquarters is meaningful to Western Slope officials.
“I think that would be a mistake for the Biden administration because he also needs to focus on rural economic development,” said Rose Pugliese, a Republican and former Mesa County commissioner who said the relocation helped put Grand Junction on the map. “The primary reason for the move is to have the people making the decisions on federal lands near the federal lands.”
The headquarters complements other agency offices in the area, and it offers six-figure jobs and the ability for current agency employees to move into senior leadership positions, advocates said.
“It would be a bit of a blow,” Schwenke added.