A conservation group is glad the Bureau of Land Management is moving back to D.C.

A conservation group of former employees applauds Bureau of Land Management's moving its headquarters back to DC

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Lots of people were unhappy  during the Trump administration when the Bureau of Land Management headquarters moved from Washington DC to Grand Junction, Colorado. The idea was to put management near the lands they oversee. At least one support group, the Public Lands Foundation, is happy BLM is going to move back to DC. For why, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the foundation’s president, Mary Jo Rugwell.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Before we get started on the BLM, just tell us a little bit about the foundation.

Mary Jo Rugwell: Well, the Public Lands Foundation is an organization made up primarily of retired Bureau of Land Management employees, who spent many many years working as public servants, and managing public lands. Our main mission is advocacy. And we believe very strongly that public lands need to remain in public hands. And the bureau needs the resources in order to manage those lands efficiently and properly.

Tom Temin: And you have a map that you’ve published similar to other ones published by the BLM that show that the vast bulk of the land that is overseen by BLM is west of the Mississippi River. So I guess the basic question is, why should it not be in Grand Junction headquarters?

Mary Jo Rugwell: So Tom, the vast majority of people that work for the Bureau of Land Management are located in the West. In fact, I think that number is somewhere around 97% of the bureau’s employees live and work and are valued members of the communities in the West. What we’re talking about is the headquarters office, which really needs to be in the Washington DC area, because of the fact that many of their functions require working directly with Congress, working with other federal agencies, figuring out budgets, they really need the ability to have timely conversations with a wide variety of people. The Grand Junction area is a lovely place. And the the current director of the Bureau of Land Management has decided to leave a portion of the headquarters employees that work on national conservation lands, they’re in Grand Junction, which is completely appropriate. In fact, I believe that there will actually be more employees in Grand Junction than there would have been before. But the the employees that work on budget and policy and need to help Congress in terms of commenting on legislation and working with other land management agencies and other federal agencies need to have that proximity of being right there where they can have ready conversations. I mean, Grand Junction is two hours away from in terms of, you know, time zones. And so it’s a lot more timely, when you’ve got somebody in the same time zone, you have a question and need their help.

Tom Temin: And it is remote in and of itself, too. It’s a city of only about 60,000 people.

Mary Jo Rugwell: We actually had our annual meeting there a couple of weeks ago. And the reason we did was because our topic for that meeting was electric bikes. And that part of Colorado is really a mountain biking mecca, and electric bikes are really becoming a big issue there. That’s the reason we met there. And again, the Public Lands Foundation thinks that Grand Junction is a lovely place. But the functions of a Washington office need to happen within the beltway. And so I think the director now has the right idea about moving the functions that need to be in DC there and leaving the ones that can occur readily in the West, they’re in Grand Junction.

Tom Temin: Out there in the West. And to what extent do the activities of all those field people, the 97%, of those that are out there feed up into Washington in the formulation of policy?

Mary Jo Rugwell: Well, you know, they absolutely do in terms of, you know, each each Bureau of land Management state has what they call a state director. And that state director is responsible for what happens in the state that they live in, work in. And they are like the conduit between all the field people, the mostly 97% of our employees, and the Washington office. So there’s a lot of interchange. A lot of, you know, discussion, but at the end of the day, you know, the policy is made, where all the agencies work, congress is, where budget gets figured out, and then it comes down through the state directors to those field people. And it’s worked really well for 70, almost 75 years. So that’s why our organization was pretty concerned when the last administration thought that this was a good idea because honestly, there wasn’t really wasn’t a lot of analysis done. It was done pretty quickly. And I think without a lot of vision or thought and so that was you know what, what had us troubled about that.

Tom Temin: we’re speaking with Mary Jo Rugwell, she’s president of the Public Lands Foundation. And you mentioned most of the members are former BLM staff members. What was your own career federally?

Mary Jo Rugwell: Well, I worked for the Bureau for over 36 years, basically started really kind of, at the ground as  one of those people that that does the heavy lifting. There’s a lot of great employees that work for the Bureau. And I was fortunate in the third of those 36 years to be able to move up in my career and retired as a state director, the state director for Wyoming just a few years ago, about three or four years ago.

Tom Temin: And what you say, though, I must comment flies in the face of a lot of modern thinking about where people work, and more and more agencies are saying, well, we can hire people to work remotely now. Not telework from localities nearby the office but remote work. And so is it possible for the director to be remote and in this day and age of telecommunications, video conferencing and so on?

Mary Jo Rugwell: Because of the pandemic, the bureau has really, I think, embraced remote work for many of the rank and file employees and  even some higher level employees. But at the end of the day, there are certain jobs that you have to have that interpersonal face- to-face interaction. And the director is certainly one, many of the assistant directors and the deputy, we have a deputy director for policy and a deputy director for operations. Again, the reason that they need to be in DC is kind of also the reason that needs to be face -to-face. There are just many times that those meetings have to happen very quickly. Responses need to be very timely. And while remote work is a nice idea, and can work in certain situations. It’s not the most effective in all situations.

Tom Temin: All right. And I just wanted to ask a couple more questions about your own career. And as you said, a moment ago, you retired as the state director for Wyoming. Big state, not too many people, kind of my kind of state.

Mary Jo Rugwell: Yes, and like many states in the West where the BLM managed public lands are, almost half of Wyoming is public land, which I think sometimes people don’t understand. I think more and more now the public is is understanding how important those public lands are. Because during the pandemic, I think so many people, the only real option was to get outside. And I think that people not only in the West, but people all over the country realized that public lands are a treasure and something that we really have to keep in public hands. Because if the everyone owns them, then everyone gets to use them. And if they’re privatized that whole, you know, that whole wonderful gift goes away.

Tom Temin: Sure. And did you learn to ride a horse in the course of your career?

Mary Jo Rugwell: I did not learn to ride a horse. I did take wilderness training during the latter part of my career, and I did have to ride a horse as a part of that training. Because we rode into the wilderness. I will say it’s been a while since I’ve been on a horse. So it was a little bit. It was a bit challenging, but I managed. It was okay.

Tom Temin: And did you retire in Wyoming or did you move back East?

Mary Jo Rugwell: Yes. I retired in Wyoming.

Tom Temin: Well, beautiful state. I’ve got to get through there more.

Mary Jo Rugwell: It’s a fabulous place. Absolutely.

Tom Temin: Mary Jo Rugwell is president of the Public Lands Foundation.


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