Tracy Stone-Manning, the Biden administration’s director of the Bureau of Land Management, got her start in conservation at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers in Montana. As the executive Director of the Missoula-based restoration nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Stone-Manning pushed for the removal of a Superfund site damThrough 2012, she worked as a field Director for U.S. senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to increase support for legislation that balanced recreation and forest. She’s held a variety of leadership positions since then: director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, chief of staff for former Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock was most recently the senior advisor for conservation policy at The National Wildlife Federation.
Now, as the director of the BLM, Stone-Manning is tasked with overseeing one out of every 10 acres of land in the U.S. She leads an agency that hasn’t had a permanent director since 2017 and that’s struggled with staff recruitment and diversity following a botched headquarters relocation to Grand Junction, Colorado, during the Trump administration. Stone-Manning must manage the diverse desires of ranchers and energy developers, as well as recreationists, who all want different things out of public lands.
High Country News Stone-Manning was on her way from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Farmington, New Mexico. She wanted to know how the BLM would achieve its conservation goals and what role it might play in addressing climate change.
This conversation has been edited to be more concise and clear.
High Country News How will your experience as a person who has lived and worked in West Texas influence your approach to leading BLM?
Tracy Stone-ManningThere is something to sitting around a table, rolling up your sleeves and listening to the concerns of the person in front of you. I have witnessed people talk to each other and get through very difficult situations. That is going to help inform how I approach the work, and I do think it’s a really Western sensibility. These are difficult places to live in, so people need to work together. This ethic is instilled in the West. Although there have been many famous fights over the centuries, the key to overcoming them and settling them is to work together.
“I have seen people over and over get through really intractable issues by talking to each other.”
HCN: You lead an agency that leases land for oil and gas development, which causes climate change, yet you work for an administration that says it’s trying to fight climate change. How can you reconcile these two things?
TSM:The president has asked us all to shift our economy to a clean-energy future. He is asking us to find the solution that will benefit our country and the planet long-term. And that transition, although we all want it to happen overnight, isn’t going to happen overnight. We must be very, very smart about how we power the country and how we transition to clean energy. The BLM’s job is to make this shift and to use the laws and processes that Congress has given us to guide the transition.
HCN: What role will the BLM, under your leadership, play in addressing climate crisis? Can you give us a concrete example?
TSM: Sure. We’re ramping up our renewable energy development. The Energy Act of 2020 was passed by Congress. It requires public lands to provide 25 gigawatts of clean electricity by 2025. The BLM is on the right track to reaching that number. It’s transformational.
HCN: Since Biden was elected, the BLM The royalty rates were reducedCompanies that mine coal on public land are required to pay the federal government. Do you support this policy? Do you support it?
TSM: I don’t want to be pre-decisional. There are some pending requests I’m taking a hard look at.
HCN: You said in a Statement in September that “our public lands are one of America’s finest ideas, and I am ready to get to work alongside a remarkable team to ensure future generations benefit from them like we have.” How does the history of dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples that led to the creation of public lands influence your thinking on how they should be managed today?
“We are going to honor our obligations and our government-to-government tribal responsibilities in as deep a way as possible.”
TSM:The administration was very, really clear about what it meant.,We have not done enough to include tribal voices in our management practices historically. We are taking this on in a deeply felt sense. I’m literally driving to Farmington to meet with Navajo allottees about the Chaco mineral withdrawal, and yesterday met with the All Pueblo Council of Governors to hear their thoughts on how we move forward on a broader landscape effort around Chaco, how we respond to a recent desecration of a petroglyph site. These examples show that we are able to understand the history of our role as stewards of these lands. And we are going to honor our obligations and our government-to-government tribal responsibilities in as deep a way as possible.
HCN: Senior BLM officers Public lands, as they were called, are not for sale. leased for grazing livestock should count toward the Biden administration’s Conservation plan 30×30To protect 30% of the land and water in the United States by 2030. Do you believe grazing lands should also be protected? (Editor’s note: As HCNThis was reported in a Story published following this conversation took place, grazing is the primary culprit behind the degradation of approximately 40 million acres of BLM land.)
TSM: A pilot effort we have called “outcomes-based grazing” can really help inform how grazing lands can be used in the America the Beautiful initiative (the 30×30 plan’s formal name). Cattle grazing can be used to improve landscape restoration practices. I believe there is a way to look at landscapes from a before-and after perspective and say, “Does this achieve conservation?”
Our ultimate goal is to leave lands better than they were found. That’s what conservation is to me.
HCN: Our magazine Recently, it was reported that grazing fees were being increased. are the lowest they can be, according to the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act and a 1986 executive order from President Ronald Reagan, and aren’t keeping up with inflation. Do you think that the system needs to be updated?
TSM: That’s a question for Congress.
Grazing fees are set through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and guided by a congressional mandate that they can’t be raised by more than 20% a year, and they can’t go over $5 an AUM (animal unit month — the amount of forage one cow and calf, one horse or five sheep need per month).
“Our overall work is to pass on lands better than we found them. That’s what conservation is to me.”
HCN: What do you think the BLM’s role is in upholding federal laws? How should the agency proceed with enforcing federal laws like grazing regulations despite threats from armed conflict?
TSM: It’s what we do. Our job is merely to implement the laws Congress has given us. We use science and public participation to do this.
HCN: It seems very factual.
TSM:This was something I discovered when I was Montana’s director of the DEQ. People would say, ‘Well, why don’t you do X?’ And I would say, ‘Well, because that’s against the law. If you want us to do X, go to the legislature and change the law.’ The 1872 mining law is a really great example. People get really frustrated about how hardrock mining is implemented in this country, because it’s implemented by a law that was written in 1872 to help settle the West.
HCN: The West’s perennial problem is keeping sage grouse from the Endangered Species Act. What, in your opinion, is the tipping point for listing Sage grouse?
TSM: The reason that we’re asking the public to work with us on amending the sage grouse plans is because we don’t want them listed. Too much work has gone into protecting that bird — and the 350 species that that bird shares the landscape with — to get to a point of saying we have failed and we need to list. Our job is not to ignore the science, but to follow the science and do everything we can to get to a point where science supports these management plans.
It is a bit like a canary in a coal mine. We’re not just solving for sage grouse when we do this kind of work, we’re solving for an entire intricate landscape — the landscape that people see on their movie screens and celebrate as the West. It’s our job to ensure that we do everything in our power to make sure that that intricate, ecological balance stays intact.
HCN: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to consider?
TSM:I want to emphasize the power of restoration and how landscapes can be restored. We put people into work. We leave plants better than they found us. And we solve for some of these really intractable issues that we’ve just been talking about, like with sage grouse. Nature is the best engineering on the planet. We should do everything we can to restore the natural state of things and let nature take control.
These issues can be so difficult because of a beautiful thing: the shared value of the landscape. Because we all love it, we all have opinions. And that’s it. This is the force that binds all of us and what I hope people can hold onto as we tackle these difficult issues.
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