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Considering that almost all of the acreage being managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is located in 12 Western states, why not move the BLM's headquarters from Washington, D.C. to one of those states?

It's an interesting idea, and it's one that might be on the verge of getting some traction in D.C.

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has introduced a bill in the Senate to force the move. A similar measure has been introduced in the House, where it has attracted both Republican and Democratic sponsors.

And, according to a recent Associated Press story about the idea, it has a powerful ally in the form of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was a Republican congressman from Montana before he joined the administration. 

Of course, the secretary of the Interior Department has more than a passing interest in the BLM; the agency is part of the secretary's portfolio.

Critics of the BLM (which have included over the years senators and representatives of both parties, including Zinke) long have argued that the agency is out of touch with the Western states where its holdings are concentrated.

And there is an important distinction to keep in mind between the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, another federal agency with millions of acres under its oversight: Forest Service lands are scattered throughout the United States, from the East Coast to the West.

The BLM, on the other hand, barely registers as a blip in the eastern part of the nation: More than 99 percent of the land under its control falls in one of a dozen Western states: Oregon, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. In those states, the BLM casts a big shadow: It manages a combined 385,000 square miles. 

In Oregon, the shadow cast by the BLM actually is bigger than in most other Western states: The agency manages 25,226 square miles in Oregon, about 25.6 percent of the state. Only Nevada, Utah and Wyoming have a larger percentage of their land under BLM control. In Nevada, the BLM manages 66 percent of the land.

Talk about the possible move jibes with comments Zinke made back in September, when he said he wants to move much of the Interior Department's decision-making to the West. That's not really a new sentiment: Some Westerners consistently have argued that the federal land managers should be closer to the land they oversee. And, in some regards, this is just another chapter in the long-simmering tension between Washington, D.C. and Western states, a tension that occasionally erupts into incidents such as the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a group of misguided self-styled patriots.

On one level, moving BLM headquarters out West would make a certain sense.

But it's not clear whether the move would amount to much more than window dressing — and it's fair to note that some quarters are viewing Zinke's motives with some suspicion.

For example, some environmental groups suspect that Zinke may be eyeing the as a way to strip the agency of employees he considers disloyal, a charge the secretary denies.

And it's worth remembering that as matters stand, only about 400 of the agency's 9,000 employees are located in Washington, D.C. The remainder are scattered among 140 state, district or field offices. Certainly, even if the BLM moved its decision-making out West, it still would need to maintain a strong presence in D.C., where vital policy and budget matters are hashed out: The agency needs to maintain strong relationships both in the West and in D.C.

It's undeniable, however, that the idea has a certain appeal to Westerners who have long complained that the BLM consistently turns a deaf ear to their concerns. What's not clear yet is whether a move West would do anything concrete to address those complaints. (mm)


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