(de)regulation nation special: key enviro, science agencies face destruction by relocation
"Weak minds and leaders challenge loyalty to our country in order to avoid challenging and debating the policy."
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I’m breaking the usual bad-to-great format today, to devote this entire issue of (de)regulation nation to a series of bombshell developments: plans by the Trump administration to dismantle the D.C.-based headquarters of important science and environment agencies within the departments of Agriculture and Interior.
bad: Trump moves to disperse senior staff who manage public lands
The Department of Interior has announced that it intends to “re-align” the national headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management.
Translation: Move all but 61 out of hundreds of D.C.-based senior BLM staff positions to states west of the Mississippi River, by the end of 2020.
If this move comes off, it will be a watermark in a decades-long campaign (dubbed the “Sagebrush Rebellion” during the Reagan era) to weaken and end federal control of public lands in western states. (National Geographic explained this controversy well during its coverage of the 2016 armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.)
BLM is the agency that (among many other responsibilities) leases mining, fossil and renewable energy development, and grazing on federal public lands.
Around 8,600 of BLM’s employees already work at state offices beyond Washington, D.C.
According to the Washington Post, at a Tuesday morning briefing for staff, “the tension in the room was palpable as employees questioned what the move would mean for those with two-career families or other obligations that might tie them to Washington.”
“When [acting BLM chief Casey] Hammond declared, ‘There is no need to panic,’ several in the audience laughed,” a source tells the Post.
(Two and a half years into his term of office, President Trump has yet to appoint a director for BLM.)
At a 30-minute press call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Joe Balash said re-aligning is projected to save BLM tens of millions of dollars, since it won’t have to pay high D.C. rent rates for office space anymore, or high D.C.-area salaries.
Balash also emphasized that it will create the “opportunity of senior BLM employees to mentor those who are coming up the ranks.”
Asked by a reporter to “address concerns that this could result in diminishing expertise of BLM,” Balash replied, “That particular characterization must be coming from someone who doesn’t live in the 21st century,” adding that improving video conference technologies will enable just as much effective staff coordination and collaboration as ever.
[Uh-huh, shuuure, says everybody who’s ever had to collaborate regularly with co-workers via video-conference.]
“When it comes to the business of BLM, it gets done on the public lands with the people who use public lands, and those are all out in the west,” Balach told reporters.
(As a state official in Alaska, Balash “fought for an Alaska-led plan to allow modern seismic studies in the 19 million-acre [Arctic National Wildlife] refuge where oil exploration has been off-limits for decades,” the Anchorage Daily News reported in 2017, when he was confirmed to his BLM post.)
In a statement later in the day, Interior Secretary Bernhardt also emphasized the geographical benefits of re-aligning some hundreds of BLM’s nearly nine thousand staff to areas "where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located”:
“These are federal lands, owned by everybody,” counters Randi Spivak, the public lands program director for the green group Center for Biological Diversity.
If senior staff are re-aligned “out there in oil and gas country, yes, they’ll be more insulated, and more subject to more influence” by fossil energy developers, who are big employers in western states, and already largely calling the shots on public lands policies under Trump.
Congress could stop the re-alignment by defunding it in the 2020 federal budget, Spivak says, pointing to the lukewarm support for the move by lawmakers who oversee Interior’s funding, in a recent appropriations report:
“We’re seeing the total industrialization of our public lands under the Trump administration,” says Spivak, with more than 1.3 million acres leased for oil and gas extraction in 2018 alone.
Chart courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity
The opened areas include critical habitat for struggling species like sage grouse and pronghorns.
To Spivak, the BLM re-alignment “seems like a ruse…it’s all about how much fracking and mining and drilling can happen on public lands. [Trump appointees] have put those industries above wildlife, water, clean air, and recreation.”
“There’s no recovering from that,” she says. “You do not get wild lands back from there.”
The Washington Post broke this story and continues to follow it closely.
Grand Junction, Colo. is one of the locations that BLM staff will be re-aligned to, and The Colorado Sun is following that.
NPR did some good reporting in March on the recreation boom that’s seeing millions of people using public lands ski, hike, hunt, camp and more, despite sinking BLM funding for recreation programs.
The Grand Junction Sentinel quotes Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) on the BLM HQ’s “historic” move. “‘I am damn proud of Grand Junction,’ he told The Daily Sentinel, not once but twice.”
also bad: Trump plan to relocate climate, food research agencies spurs exodus of expert staff
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced in late June that two important research agencies within the department will be relocating to Kansas City.
“Many employees at the two affected agencies, the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, view the change as politically driven and a way to disrupt climate research and other work with which their bosses disagree by pushing out experienced personnel. ,” reports CNN.
CNN reports that vast majorities of staff at the two agencies say they won’t move to Kansas City, but those that do “must be ready to show up for work by September 30.”
“Employees turned their backs on the agriculture secretary in silent protest as he announced the news in Washington,” reports the Kansas City Star.
Perdue claims the move is meant to locate the agencies closer to midwestern farmers and ag-research-focused universities.
But public interest advocates say the Trump administration’s hostility to science is really driving the move.
“I think that moving the agencies out of D.C. is going to significantly dilute their effectiveness as well as their relevance,” a food and environment policy activist tells NPR.
Thanks for reading (de)regulation nation, a production of Brooklyn Radio Telegraph LLC.
This newsletter is written by me, Emily J Gertz. I’m a veteran environmental journalist and a graduate of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism ’s annual fellowship. You’ll find links to my past reporting and more biographical goodness at my website .
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This week’s quote is by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14), from her response to the president’s racist attack on her and three other women of color in Congress.