A Q&A with Tracy Stone-Manning, Director of the Bureau of Land Management

This story was originally posted by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the Biden administration’s Bureau of Land Management, got her start in conservation at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers in Montana.

As an executive director of the Missoula-based nonprofit Clark Fork Restoration Coalition in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Stone-Manning lobbied for the removal of a Superfund site damthen, as field director for U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, until 2012, she worked to build support for legislation balancing recreation and forestry. Since then, she has held a variety of leadership positions: Director of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, Chief of Staff to former Democratic Montana Governor Steve Bullock, and most recently Senior Policy Advisor for conservation at the National Wildlife Federation.

Now, as director of the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, Stone-Manning is tasked with overseeing 10 acres of land in the United States. She leads an agency that hasn’t had a permanent director since 2017 and is struggling with staff recruitment and diversity following a botched head office move to Grand Junction, Colorado, under administration. Trump. Through it all, Stone-Manning must balance the desires of ranchers, energy developers and recreation enthusiasts who all want different things from public land.

High Country News recently caught up with Stone-Manning while traveling from Albuquerque to Farmington, New Mexico to ask how the BLM will achieve its conservation goals, the role the agency could play in addressing the climate crisis, and more.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How will your experience as someone who has lived and worked in the West, rather than DC, influence your approach to leading the BLM?

A: There really is something about sitting around the table, rolling up your sleeves, listening and hearing the concerns of the person in front of you. I’ve seen people time and time again overcome really intractable problems by talking to each other. It’s going to help inform my way of approaching work, and I think it’s really a Western sensibility. These are tough places to physically live, so people have to work together. This kind of ethics is permeated in the West. There have certainly been well-known fights throughout time, but the path through those fights, and the way to settle them, is to work together.

Q: You run an agency that leases land for oil and gas development, which causes climate change, but you work for an administration that says it’s trying to fight climate change. How do you reconcile these two things?

A: The President has asked us to pivot our economy toward a clean energy future; it asks us to find that solution that this country and the planet needs for our long-term well-being. And this transition, while we all want it to happen overnight, will not happen overnight. We need to be really, really smart about the choices we make about how we power this country and transition to clean energy efficiently, effectively and quickly. Our job (at BLM) is to make that change and use the processes in place, the laws given to us by Congress, to help guide that transition.

Q: What role will the BLM under your leadership play in addressing the climate crisis? Can you give readers a specific example?

A: Sure. We are accelerating our development of renewable energies. Congress passed the Energy Act of 2020 which calls for public lands to provide 25 gigawatts of clean energy by 2025. We (the BLM) are on track to achieve that number. It’s transformational.

Q: Since Biden took office, the BLM has reduced royalty rates companies that mine coal on public lands pay the federal government. Will you continue this policy? Do you support him?

A: I don’t want to be pre-decisional. There are pending requests which I am carefully reviewing.

Q: You said in a statement in september that “our public lands are one of America’s best ideas, and I’m ready to work alongside a remarkable team to ensure that future generations benefit as we do.” How does the history of Indigenous dispossession and genocide that led to the creation of public lands influence your thinking about how they should be managed today?

A: The administration has been very, very clear about how historically we haven’t done everything we can to incorporate tribal voices into our management practices. We take that in a really deep sense. I am literally traveling to Farmington to meet with Navajo claimants about the removal of minerals from the Chaco, and I met yesterday with the All Pueblo Board of Governors to hear their thoughts on how we are moving forward in an effort landscape around the Chaco, how we respond to a recent desecration of a petroglyph site. I use these examples to say that we understand the history of how we became stewards of these lands. And we will honor our government-to-government tribal obligations and responsibilities in the deepest way possible.

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Q: Senior BLM Officials said that public lands leased for cattle grazing should count for the Biden administration Conservation Plan 30×30 protect 30% of US land and water by 2030. Do you think pastures should be included? (Editor’s note: As HCN reported in a story posted after this conversation occurred, grazing is the primary culprit in the degradation of approximately 40 million acres of BLM land.)

A: A pilot effort we’ve called “outcome-based grazing” can really help inform how grazing land can be used in the America the Beautiful initiative (the official name of the 30×30 plan). Livestock grazing can be used as a tool on the landscape to aid restoration practices. I think there’s a way to look at landscapes in a before and after sense, and say, does it enable conservation?

Our overall job is to pass on better land than we found. That’s what conservation is to me.

Q: Our magazine recently reported that pasture costs are the lowest possible, according to the Public Range Improvement Act of 1978 and a 1986 executive order of President Ronald Reagan, and do not keep up with inflation. Does this system need to be updated?

A: This is a question for Congress.

Pasture fees are set by the United States Department of Agriculture and guided by a Congressional mandate that they cannot be increased by more than 20% per year, and they cannot exceed $5 per AUM (month of animal unit – the amount of fodder needed for a cow and a calf, a horse or five sheep per month).

Q: What do you see as the BLM’s role in enforcing federal law? How should the agency proceed with enforcing federal laws, such as grazing regulations, despite threats of armed conflict?

A: This is what we do. Our job is to implement the laws that Congress gives us, and we use science and public participation to implement those laws.

Q: You seem really realistic about this.

A: I discovered this when I was director of the DEQ in Montana. People were like, ‘Well, why don’t you do X?’ And I was like, ‘Well, because it’s against the law. If you want us to do X, go to the legislature and change the law. The mining law of 1872 is a very good example. People are really frustrated with the way hard rock mining is implemented in this country, as it is implemented by a law written in 1872 to help settle the West.

Q: Keeping sage grouse off the Endangered Species Act list is an ongoing issue in the West. What do you think would be a tipping point for the listing of sage-grouse?

A: The reason we’re asking the public to work with us to change the sage grouse plans is because we don’t want them listed. Too much work has gone into protecting this bird – and the 350 species with which this bird shares the landscape – to say we’ve failed and need to make a list. Our job is to follow the science on this and do everything in our power to get to a place where the science indicates that these are appropriate management plans to keep this species.

It’s a bit of a canary in the coal mine. We’re not just solving sage grouse when we do this kind of work, we’re solving a whole complex landscape – the landscape that people see on their movie screens and celebrate like the West. It is our job to ensure that we do everything in our power to ensure that this complex ecological balance remains intact.

Q: Is there anything else you would like our readers to consider?

A: I want to make sure we address the power of restoration and how when we restore a landscape we do a lot of things. We put people to work. We leave the plants better than we found them. And we solve some of these really intractable problems that we just talked about, like with the sage grouse. Nature is the best engineering we have on the planet, and we should do everything we can to get things back to as natural a state as possible, and then let nature take over.

The reason some of these issues are so difficult comes down to one really beautiful thing, which is this shared value around landscape. We all have opinions about it, because we all love it. And that’s all. It’s the strength that unites us and that I hope people can hold on to as we tackle these difficult issues.