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US official reiterates push to move land agency out West

A high-ranking U.S. Interior Department official on August 23 reiterated the agency’s strong interest in moving its Bureau of Land Management headquarters to the American West.

The move isn’t a done deal, Susan Combs, an assistant secretary at Interior, said as she visited a northern Utah city that is among those under consideration for the new location. But she spoke passionately during a round table in Ogden about the need to bridge the gap between bureaucrats and the people affected by their decisions.

The bureau, which is overseen by Interior, manages nearly 388,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) of land nationwide, and 99 percent is in 12 Western states.

Important factors often get lost in translation from Western states to government employees in Washington, D.C., Combs said. Having employees living in a community where they would be running into locals at the grocery would change their perspective.

“The goal is to reorganize by devolving power out,” Combs said. “We’re operating in a landscape where people live. I think it has been sort of detached. Bringing the decision-making back to the local level means that you have better chance to explain what’s on your mind.”

The possible move of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters is part of a larger reorganization of the Interior Department that Secretary Ryan Zinke has ordered.

A decision about whether to move the bureau and where isn’t expected for many months.

While leaders in the U.S. West agree the headquarters should be closer to the land it manages, bureau veterans have said the agency needs a presence in Washington, D.C.

Combs said Ogden was beautiful after she toured the city of 87,000 people north of Salt Lake City with an Air Force base, college and proximity to ski resorts. But she said it’s merely one of many under consideration, which also include communities in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

Combs also has visited or plans to visit Grand Junction and Denver in Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Boise, Idaho. Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, is also under consideration, she said.

Conservative Utah leaders have long chafed under the agency’s management of 36,000 square miles of public land in the state and called for it to come under state control.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said during the round table that there’s no question the bureau would be more efficient in a Western state where employees would live alongside miners, farmers, ranchers, tourists and outdoor recreationists and understand how public lands they manage are used.

“That can only happen in a place like Utah,” Herbert said. “It won’t happen in a place like Washington, D.C.”

Combs said the department has requested an analytical analysis by the General Services Administration to assess cost of living, education, access to health care and proximity to airports in different cities.

She said they will also take into consideration the lifestyles in each city.

“This isn’t 30,000-foot stuff,” Combs said. “This is granular.”

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