Could the BLM finally get a real director?

The agency responsible for one-eight of all U.S. lands has a chance at effective leadership
carrizo plain national monument
BLM-managed Carrizo Plain National Monument (photo: Bob Wick / BLM / cc2.0).

The Bureau of Land Management has a huge job, and it has never been an easy one. Even with its billion-dollar budget, overseeing about 245 million acres—which represents about one-eighth of all U.S. land and roughly 25 percent more than the Forest Service, the next largest federal land manager—is no picnic. The agency’s pro-utilization origins (a blending of the General Land Office and the US Grazing Service) and its oversight of 18,000 grazing leases and permits on 155 million acres, energy leases for 63,000 oil and gas wells, 221 wilderness areas, two dozen national monuments, over 600 other protected areas, and hordes of recreationalists ranging from wilderness-focused hunters and anglers to increasing numbers of off-road vehicle users, requires the agency to seek a balance between extraction, preservation, and recreation. It also guarantees that almost any action the agency takes will leave many furious. “Multiple use mandate” is a simple phrase, but managing it has never been more of a minefield.

The agency’s job didn’t get any easier with the stunts of the Trump administration. It appointed William Perry Pendley, a zealot for the sale of public lands, as acting director in summer of 2019 and refused to send his nomination to the US Senate for review, allowing him to stay in that role until a federal judge ruled in September 2020 that Pendley had served unlawfully for 424 days. Though Pendley refused to acknowledge the judge’s ruling, he was eased out of the directorship—but not before Pendley oversaw a dramatic expansion in oil and gas leases at fire sale prices and a move of BLM headquarters from Washington DC to Colorado. Nearly 300 staffers left the agency, and only 41 moved, effectively eviscerating BLM’s institutional resources and memory.

To lead this bruised agency—whose challenges have been further inflamed by record droughts, fires, and Bundy-fueled government hatred—the Biden Administration has nominated Tracy Stone-Manning and, in contrast to its predecessor, sent her nomination to the Senate.

Full disclosure—Tracy is a friend and colleague. I’ve known her for decades and heard about her for a decade before that. We have worked together in various capacities, sometimes intensively, and we have been on antelope and bird hunting trips together. I like her bird dogs, and that is an important criterion for me. If people don’t treat their dogs well, they sure as hell are not going to treat other people well. Tracy ranks amongst the top half-dozen most effective, intelligent, and hard-working colleagues I have ever encountered—and she may be at the top of that profoundly impressive group.

Her accomplishments for anglers and ecosystems of Montana and the country are too numerous to enumerate, but here are a few. When she directed the Clark Fork Coalition, she and Bruce Farling of TU drove the removal of Milltown Dam at the junction of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork a few miles upstream of Missoula, in addition to a second dam just up the Blackfoot. Milltown, a decaying structure over a century old, held six million yards of contaminated smelter waste, blocked passage of cutthroat and bull trout, and created the best spawning habitat for illegally introduced northern pike in the upper drainage. They even convinced Republican Governor Judy Martz, a self-professed “lapdog of industry” (her words), to use the single “silver bullet” each state gets under Superfund law to initiate the project. Tracy and Bruce also ran the dramatically successful campaign to uphold Montana’s cyanide heap leach mining ban when mining interests were pushing the state’s conservative legislature to erase it. Tracy (again, with Bruce’s help) drove the clean up of the Mike Horse mine tailings site, a massive and unstable dirt dam holding 400,000 tons of contaminated mine waste that had already breached once and caused a massive fish kill in the upper Blackfoot. As director of Montana DEQ, Tracy oversaw a team to work with cities and industry to convert the state’s nutrient standard from narrative to quantitative (a major advance for aquatic integrity that, horribly, was rescinded in the 2021 legislative session).

Unrelated to fishing and aquatic ecosystems but a dramatic example of her ability to build broad consensus was her work for Governor Steve Bullock to pass Medicaid expansion in a deeply red state. 90,000 of my neighbors now have health insurance because of that change.

That’s not to say that I haven’t disagreed with Tracy on occasion—particularly when she was Bullock’s chief of staff and when she directed Montana DEQ, taking some difficult positions in those capacities. When I disagree with Tracy, though, I do so carefully—she speaks with all sides, she is right far more often than not, and she is always more concerned with good solutions and execution than dogma or party.

Tracy is now being attacked for helping Earth First send a letter thirty years ago to the Clearwater National Forest to warn them that a planned cut had been spiked. Tree spiking was controversial within monkeywrenching groups even then. One faction held that loggers and sawmill owners deserved the damage the spikes caused, and even the small but very real risk of severe bodily harm. The other faction, which Tracy was a part of, said there was no moral justification for creating risk of injury to loggers and mill workers, and it made no sense strategically to the groups’ goals. Her detractors, most vocally Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), say only that she worked with eco-terrorists. They leave out the parts where 1) Tracy sent a letter to prevent injury, and 2) she testified against the tree spikers, providing testimony that sent two of them to jail. That’s a matter of legal record; Google it. Those distortions, though, are the best these partisans can come up with. It’s worth mentioning that Montana’s deeply conservative legislature grilled her about her role in this incident when Bullock nominated her for the DEQ director position—and confirmed her.

Tracy is also being vilified for her service as a board member of Montana Conservation Voters, which I serve as board chair. The Stone-Manning critics are angry that MCV endorsed Steve Bullock in his unsuccessful bid against Senator Daines in 2020. But that’s what MCV does—endorse the conservation candidate. Bullock’s conservation record was far from perfect, but it towered over Daines’s. We don’t apologize for endorsing candidates based on their records, but we try to find areas where we can work with all. When Senator Daines votes for a bill that benefits conservation—which is rare, but occurs occasionally—MCV and I thank him. His staff have my emails and call records. If he starts to vote conservation positions more regularly we will recognize him, and our candidate rankings will reflect those votes. It isn’t personal or partisan with MCV; it’s purely a matter of voting record.

Neither should it be personal or partisan with Tracy’s nomination. An incredibly effective person with a long history of working through difficult issues through real dialogue with all sides has been nominated to run a crucially important but weakened agency. To borrow a phrase from a profoundly conservative friend here in Montana, we don’t pay these people and send them to Helena or Washington to do politics—we send them to find good solutions and get real work done. Tracy’s record shows that is where she shines. If you fish, hunt, or otherwise enjoy BLM lands, or even just worry about the people we send to important government posts, please consider joining me in supporting her nomination by clicking this link, posting it on social media, and calling your senators:

This article was updated to correct an error with the BLM's annual budget.

Comments

The BLM's budget is 1 Billion$ annually +- not $1 Trillion. 1 Billion still sounds like a lot of money but it's only about $4.00 per acre annually. Much lower than any other federal land management agency.

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