Can the BLM be Fixed? Tracy Stone-Manning Takes the Helm of a Broken Agency

After a contentious confirmation fight in the Senate, Tracy Stone-Manning has been confirmed to become the Director of the Bureau of Land Management. This will be the first time the agency has a properly-confirmed Director since the Obama administration. Under Trump, the agency was headed by a series of temporary stand-ins, including the public-lands-selloff activist William Perry Pendley who so overstayed the legally available term limits for an Acting Director that he was removed by the courts. Stone-Manning inherits an agency wracked by longstanding incompetence and corruption, held captive by the commercial industries it is tasked with regulating, and with a long habit of ignoring the public interest it is legally obligated to serve.

Director Stone-Manning steps into an agency that has been gutted of many of its career professionals during the Trump administration. The Trump administration enforced an Orwellian Newspeak, removing the use of “climate change” on official documents and websites with the goal of reversing the progress toward clean, renewable energy and to fast-track fossil fuel production on public lands and the federal mineral deposits beneath private lands. Then, a much-ballyhooed move of the Washington, DC agency headquarters to an oil and gas industry office building in Grand Junction, Colorado caused more than 87% of the headquarters staff to quit. The senior staff that survived the purge is heavily skewed in the image of the anti-conservation and pro-industry Trump administration, and according to polling three-quarters of agency staff think the agency is headed in the wrong direction.

There are the longstanding land management issues that got the agency derisively branded as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining” by author Edward Abbey, and vigorously scalded in the more recent book, This Land. Stone-Manning faces problems old and new, taking charge of a bureaucracy that has historically let commercial industry run roughshod over public lands with hardly a pretense for conserving land health, native wildlife, or public recreation opportunities.

Much of the nation’s fossil fuel production comes from public lands and minerals, from the coal strip-mines of the Power River Basin to the vast gas-lands of the Uinta Basin and Upper Green River Valley. These are the mineral deposits that have fueled the Climate Crisis, destroyed winter ranges and migration corridors used by elk and pronghorn, and decimated sage grouse populations in developed areas. On the campaign trail President Biden promised to shut down oil and gas leasing on public lands to stem the tide of carbon pollution. Will his new Bureau of Land Management Director follow through?

Commercial livestock have been a dominant use of western public lands, and the most widespread cause of environmental degradation. Public Employees for Environmental responsibility published a map showing grazing leases still failing Rangeland Health standards. In response, the agency started lumping grazing allotments “meeting” Rangeland Health standards together with those “not meeting, but moving toward” standards, to make it impossible to see how much public land is failing land-health standards. This agency habitually authorizes livestock producers to graze off 50 to 60 percent of the land’s annual grass production, a level of overgrazing far exceeding the 30 percent maximum prescribed for arid lands in basic range management textbooks. This chronic abuse of the public lands doesn’t just impair public recreation, it destroys spawning habitat for trout and salmon, contributing to Endangered Species Act listings for bull trout, chinook and coho salmon, and Lahontan cutthroat trout populations. It is the single greatest cause of sage-grouse population declines on the majority of western public lands where industrial-scale mining and drilling isn’t taking place. This overgrazing is the single biggest factor responsible for the epidemic of the invasive weed cheatgrass, which leads to massive wildfires, sagebrush habitat loss, destruction of wildlife habitat effectiveness, and turning western rangelands from an important source of carbon storage to a net carbon emitter into the atmosphere. Will Stone-Manning have what it takes to give the agency’s livestock program the massive overhaul required to restore healthy native ecosystems?

The Bureau is presently bingeing on a massive program to eradicate native pinyon-juniper woodlands in the name of “restoration.” It is also embarking on a plan to construct thousands of miles of ecologically destructive fire-breaks certain to spread noxious weeds and fragment wildlife habitats, but with no track record and scant prospect of containing large fires during the extreme fire weather when massive blazes occur. Will Stone-Manning perpetuate these Pyrrhic public-relations stunts, or will native plant communities be allowed to fulfill their natural ecological roles under her tenure?

The agency’s Wild Horse and Burro Program gives every impression of being a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, dedicated to wiping out remaining wild horse herds in order to expand domestic cattle and sheep operations. The program was caught lying (and changing its story) about its justification for emergency gathers at the Onaqui Mountain and Sand Wash Basin herd management areas, and presently is embarking on even bigger wild horse removals in Wyoming’s Red Desert Complex, despite agency admissions that all of these lands are already meeting the “thriving natural ecological balance” required by law at present, “overpopulated” wild horse populations. It’s all based on a blueprint cynically named “The Path Forward,” the fruit of another toxic collaboration rigged to be run by industry (this time, the livestock industry and its allies) and designed to take down wild horse populations to levels close to the scarcity of the early 1970s. Will Stone-Manning discard The Path Forward and manage wild horse populations as they remain on public lands, or will she continue to implement Trump-era policies to remove them (and warehouse them off-range at taxpayer expense) for the benefit of the livestock industry?

The transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy is imperative, but how it is pursued could cause major problems on western public lands. While communities of color call for distributed renewable development in urban areas to empower disadvantaged communities and provide cheap, clean energy, the Biden administration could tilt toward massive, utility-driven renewable projects instead, putting public lands in the crosshairs. Poorly-sited solar and wind projects can cause major ecological problems, just like fossil fuels. Under Stone-Manning, will the Bureau’s renewable energy approvals be a model of restraint and Smart from the Start siting, or will these efforts to solve the Climate Crisis become a major contributor to the Biodiversity Crisis instead?

There will also be opportunities for proactive conservation gains, for Tracy Stone-Manning to either seize or squander.

The Obama administration put all its eggs in the basket of creating a National Landscape Conservation System, which was supposed to put real teeth into protecting at least a subset of public lands – those designated as National Conservation Areas, National Monuments, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and Outstanding Natural Areas, for instance – and taking them off the table for industrial use and commercial exploitation. It sounded good at the time, but so far it hasn’t amounted to much of anything, conservation-wise. Because the legal and regulatory certainty never got cemented, when the Trump administration took office, they were able to simply pitch the entire initiative into the wastebasket and proceed forward with its policy of “energy dominance” and salt the Interior Department with Cliven Bundy sympathizers.

There is the nascent 30×30 initiative, intended to address the looming Biodiversity Crisis that involves western public lands. It’s currently mired in controversy over whether lands that are logged, grazed by livestock, or otherwise committed to ecologically damaging uses should be counted as “protected lands.” (Spoiler alert: they shouldn’t, except in cases where uses are 100% compatible with maintaining or restoring vibrant native ecosystems).

The Bureau of Land Management has historically done a poor job of consulting with the Indigenous tribal governments whose ancestral lands the agency now manages. Once Bears Ears National Monument gets its overdue restoration from President Biden, it could provide a model for co-management, replacing the present system where anti-conservation (and often, anti-Indigenous) county and state governments hold the agency in thrall. Will Stone-Manning preside over a new day of Indigenous inclusion, or continued exclusion?

It’s an unenviable task, taking leadership of a federal bureaucracy so decimated by personnel losses and so wracked by a history of enabling resource exploitation and resistance to ecologically responsible land management. Some former employees have offered helpful advice on how to get the Bureau out of its failed state and on track to better serve the public, rather than being an abused enabler of the industries it’s tasked with regulating. Stone-Manning will have the conservation community’s support when she takes on the problems created by decades of Bureau land mismanagement. We’ll be watching closely.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.