Home Secretary Deb Haaland is visiting the Western Slope this weekend to discuss forest fires, outdoor recreation and the controversial relocation of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction.
Haaland represented New Mexico in Congress from 2019-21 and is the first Native American to sit in the presidential cabinet.
The Trump administration abruptly moved the BLM headquarters from DC to Grand Junction in 2019. Some nonprofits and former BLM senior executives criticized the move, claims it was an attempt to core the agency and reduce its influence in Washington.
As the Interior Ministry announced that the move in examination In February 2021, Colorado politicians from both sides of the Ganges urged Biden and his cabinet to keep BLM headquarters on Western Slope.
“For our federal agencies, especially the BLM, I believe it is a great benefit to the American people when their government can be closer to them,” Senator Michael Bennet said at a press conference at Grand Junction Air Center on July 23.
Over 99% of the country under the jurisdiction of the BLM is in the western half of the United States.
Of the 327 employees who had to move from Washington DC, only 41 made the move to Grand Junction. The rest of the staff either retired or found another job leaving the agency severely understaffed.
At the event, however, Governor Jared Polis said the office will find it easier to hire new staff once they know about the future of headquarters.
“I think a lot of people are reluctant to apply for a job because they don’t want to move to DC or elsewhere a year or two later,” said Polis. “So, as long as you can be certain you can be here.”
Haaland criticized the move while she was serving in Congress. At a press conference in December 2019, she said this was “just one way to destroy the agency and make it easier for this government to sell our public land to the highest bidder.”
On Friday, she admitted the pain and trauma the agency’s uprooting was causing its employees and said her top priority was “not to cause further harm to the dedicated BLM employees.”
Haaland said Grand Junction will still be an important location for the BLM, but a decision has not yet been made.
The group also discussed fire prevention and mitigation, which President Biden has recognized as a matter of national concern.
Biden held a virtual conference with Western governors in late June. As part of the federal government’s strategy, Biden has announced that he will Increase the minimum wage for federal fire departments to $ 15 an hour.
Forest firefighters who are only classified as seasonal workers are underpaid compared to full-time municipal firefighters. Colorado Public Radio reported earlier this month that Wages and morals are low as the fire season is on and the departments are understaffed.
Rep. Joe Neguse represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses much of the mountainous region west of the greater Denver area. His district suffered several of the worst fires in the state’s history.
All speakers confirmed that the warming climate is a driving force behind the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires in the western United States, with the exception of Rep. Lauren Boebert, the only Republican present.
Instead of attributing the increasingly common forest fires to climate change, Boebert said at the event that the fires could have been contained through better forest management.
Boebert recently passed a law that would fund the removal of pine beetle killing trees from public land and the establishment of parcels for wood sales.
Without bipartisan approval, however, their law has little chance of passing in the House of Representatives or the Senate, both of which are controlled by Democrats.
Haaland will visit Ridgway on Saturday, July 23rd, to host a panel discussion on the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act, which provides 400,000 acres of Colorado public land for outdoor conservation and recreation.
The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources in March, but no further action was taken.
Governor Jared Polis (right) speaks to the press at Grand Junction Air Center on July 23, 2021 while other politicians in attendance watch. From left to right: Sen. Bennet, Rep. Neguse, Rep. Boebert, Sen. Hickenlooper and Sec. Haaland.
Anna Lynn Winfrey is a contributor to the Montrose Daily Press.