Utah elected officials and business leaders made a full-court press on Tuesday to a visiting Interior Department official for why the federal government should relocate the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to Northern Utah from the nation’s capital.
Susan Combs, an acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior, attended a public meeting at the Weber County Commission chambers in Ogden to discuss a proposed reorganization of the department, which oversees some 480 million surface acres.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, whose district includes Ogden, facilitated Tuesday’s meeting, which was attended by Weber County Commissioners, Ogden’s mayor and some business leaders.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is proposing a complete restructure of the department, streamlining the agency’s eight bureaus in 49 regions down to 12 regions. Zinke is also proposing relocating some agencies, such as the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, to western states.
“That’s the goal is to reorganize by devolving power out,” Combs, who oversees policy, management and budget for the department, said.
She said not only would this help with inter-bureau collaboration but allow state and local lawmakers better access to federal decision-makers currently located in Washington, D.C..
“The Secretary wants all decision making basically to be driven locally,” Combs added.
Touting the state’s plentiful public lands, which comprise nearly two-thirds of the state, and outdoor recreation opportunities, Gov. Gary Herbert told the visiting official the Beehive State would be a logical choice for the BLM relocation.
“When we talk about ‘location, location, location,’ Madam Secretary, there is no better location to bring the headquarters of the BLM than to the state of Utah,” Herbert said.
He said a relocation could also help ameliorate long-simmering tensions between some western states and federal land managers over designations and other politically sensitive topics.
“We have animus that probably ought not to be there,” he said. “And yet I see this change now that’s more of ‘Let’s listen to what the local people have to say,’ bringing about a more positive and productive discussion.”
Bishop said there are several reasons the Interior Department should consider Ogden over other candidates in the running, such as Grand Junction, Colo.
“First of all it has facilities that would be available right now — there are federal buildings that have space. It’s actually cheaper for the cost of living to it and the airport out here in Ogden actually has the potential of expanding,” he said.
Both Combs and Bishop acknowledged the process of moving agencies outside of Washington could take years and will likely face some resistance.
“There’s pushback from people who don’t want it to go anywhere else,” Bishop said. “What she’s saying is, ‘What you really need is to have people making decisions that are close to the people doing the stuff.’”
Asked by a Tribune reporter to respond to the argument that managing public lands should remain centralized because they are of national interest, Bishop replied “That’s a crap argument.”
“Look at the BLM map,” he said. “BLM has 44 percent of all the land the federal government owns — it’s all west of Denver.”