SALT LAKE CITY — A decision on where in the West — possibly Utah — to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters will be made this summer, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Friday.
"I'm pretty confident it’s moving. I can’t tell you where it’s going, but it’s moving," the newly appointed secretary told the Deseret News.
The Interior Department is finishing up an analysis on relocating the BLM from Washington, D.C., to the West and has included money for the move in its budget proposal, Bernhardt said.
Accompanied by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Bernhardt is in the state to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike that marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit.
Bernhardt, who replaced former Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary last month, and Bishop sat down for an interview on a variety of public lands issues before taking a helicopter to Golden Spike National Historical Park for the festivities.
Last summer, Susan Combs, Interior's assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, sized up Ogden as a possible site for the BLM. Cedar City and St. George also are in the mix.
Bishop said it makes economic sense to have the office in the West instead of flying people back and forth from Washington. Almost all of the land BLM manages is west of Denver.
"I think our employees will have a wonderful quality of life. Their salaries go so much farther out here. I think they’ll be very excited," Bernhardt said.
Republican Utah lawmakers have long sought state control of some 31 million acres of federal land. But Bernhardt doesn't see that happening.
"That’s an area where the president has drawn a pretty clear line," he said. "I'm sure we're not in the position of thinking that large-scale transfers at this time are the right thing to do."
Federal land managers are trying to be "wonderful" neighbors," Bernhardt said.
"We can work on managing land together. We can work to be good neighbors. We can work on effectively managing on our land in a way that’s consistent and harmonious with the state lands," he said.
As deputy Interior secretary, Bernhardt came to Utah with President Donald Trump in December 2017 when the president significantly reduced the sizes of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Several environmental groups and Native American tribes sued Trump over the decision.
Critics say it will open areas packed with ancient cultural relics and delicate landscapes the monuments once encompassed to mining and oil and gas exploration.
"If somebody says you’re only doing it to get oil and gas, they clearly don’t know what the hell they're talking about. There is no oil and gas in either of those," Bishop said.
"That’s why we were willing to ban any kind of mining in the Bears Ears area because it ain’t there in the first place," he said. "There’s coal at Grand Staircase but oil and gas, it doesn’t exist."
Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist, said even though the monument designation went away, wilderness and wilderness study areas remain as do other underlying laws. Much of BLM land, he said, has a conservation priority imposed on it.
"We’re going through a big planning process right now on the monuments and our planning process will decide what we can do within the boundaries of our discretion," Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt and Bishop say there's room on vast public lands for recreation, conservation and economic activity.
"If you don’t have the access for both recreational opportunities and economic opportunities on that land, on that public land, you know what you don’t have? You don’t have a community," Bernhardt said.
Utah GOP leaders have long decried President Bill Clinton's creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 and more recently President Barack Obama's designation of Bear Ears in 2016 as an abuse of the Antiquities Act. In both instances, they have sought ways to roll back the presidents' actions.
Bishop introduced a bill in March to limit a president's power to designate and reshape national monuments under the act. Utah's two GOP senators proposed legislation to prohibit presidents from creating or expanding national monuments in Utah without the consent of Congress and the state Legislature.
Bernhardt didn't state a position on the legislation when asked about it Friday.
"I think the president I worked with has used it really, really well," he said. "I think the Congress has to worry about future presidents."
The Interior Department's approach is to ensure local input, community support and congressional support before moving ahead with any designation, Bernhardt said.
He also addressed park maintenance.
The National Park Service current has a nearly $13 billion maintenance backlog that impacts popular Zion and Arches national parks.
Bernhardt said the Interior Department has a budget proposal that would address the problem in a "significant" way. He said he's also about to issue an order that would allow a broader range of parks to use fee revenue to hire staff to make sure parks are safe, clean and well-managed.
"We’re trying to make that visitor experience exceptional," he said.
Bernhardt said the order would include parks in Utah, but he wasn't sure which ones.