The BLM’s Slow Return to Normalcy
And what it means for the future of America’s public lands
On September 30, 2021, the Senate approved Tracy Stone-Manning to lead the BLM by a 50-45 vote. Stone-Manning is the first official director of the BLM in five years.
On September 20, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced plans to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Grand Junction, Colorado, back to Washington, D.C.. The move marks an ongoing attempt to restore the agency’s ability to effectively manage 245 million acres of public land, after concerted efforts by the Trump administration to destroy its institutional knowledge, remove public oversight, and illegally twist the agency into the service of the oil and gas industries.
“The Bureau of Land Management is critical to the nation’s efforts to address the climate crisis, expand public access to our public lands, and preserve our nation’s shared outdoor heritage. It is imperative that the bureau have the appropriate structure and resources to serve the American public,” said Secretary Haaland at a meeting with BLM staff. “There’s no doubt that the BLM should have a leadership presence in Washington, D.C.—like all the other land management agencies—to ensure that it has access to the policy-, budget-, and decision-making levers to best carry out its mission. In addition, the BLM’s robust presence in Colorado and across the West will continue to grow.”
BLM headquarters was relocated to Grand Junction in 2019, in a move the Trump administration claimed would bring its executive staff closer to the vast swaths of western lands the agency manages. Since 97 percent of the BLM’s 10,000 employees were already based in the West—in the same locations as the areas they manage—critics argued this was, instead, an effort to force senior staff out of the agency. It didn’t help that the new office in Colorado was shared with oil and gas firms. Instead of locating senior staff adjacent to the lawmakers who decide their budgets and provide oversight, the new office instead housed those staff in the same building as the industries they’re tasked with regulating.
Of the 328 BLM positions that were relocated out of Washington, D.C., 287 resigned from the agency rather than move. Only three staff members ultimately relocated to Grand Junction. Today, the BLM remains, “severely understaffed,” according to an agency employee who spoke with E&E News. As of the time of writing, the BLM is actively hiring for 83 positions on USAJobs.gov.
“The past several years have been incredibly disruptive to the organization, to our public servants, and to their families,” Secretary Haaland said at Monday’s staff meeting. “As we move forward, my priority is to revitalize and rebuild the BLM so that it can meet the pressing challenges of our time, and to look out for our employees’ well-being.”
One major obstacle to Haaland’s goal: like the National Park Service, the BLM has been without a Senate-confirmed director since the Obama administration. President Biden’s nominee for the role, Tracy Stone-Manning, spent much of the summer facing confirmation hearings in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where Republican senators attempted to brand her as an “eco-terrorist.” Her nomination was voted out of committee right before the chamber’s summer recess, and is now on the Senate’s to-do list for the fall.
Republican objections to Stone-Manning stem from in an incident in 1989, when she helped a college friend edit and mail a letter written on behalf of anti-logging protesters, warning of metal spikes the protestors had allegedly hammered into trees in Idaho. She later testified in court, providing evidence that led to the conviction of two of the protestors. Stone-Manning has since built a respected career around public lands management and politics, working for Senator Jon Tester, running the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, handling conservation policy for the National Wildlife Federation, and serving as former Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s chief of staff.
Republican objections to Stone-Manning’s nomination—led by Wyoming Senator John Barasso and Montana Senator Steve Daines—are notable, because those same senators supported the nomination of William Perry Pendley to the BLM director position. Pendley’s stated goal was to sell off public lands, and he authored numerous racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, anti–Native American, and anti-science screeds. His nomination ended up proving so controversial that the Trump administration eventually withdrew it. Pendley’s status running the agency as its deputy director was then ruled illegal by a federal judge, opening up all policies and decisions enacted during his tenure to legal challenges.
While Stone-Manning’s confirmation process drags on, the BLM is currently being run by the new deputy director of policy and programs, Nada Wolff Culver. Upon taking office in February, one of her first orders was to impose a two-year moratorium across a range of policies enacted by her predecessor that could have opened up 28 million acres of public land to oil and gas exploitation. The moratorium allows time for courts to rule against those decisions, or for the agency to enact new policies protecting those areas.
Like Biden’s nominee for NPS director, any future director of the BLM will not only face a challenging confirmation process, and not just be inheriting an agency de-staffed and demoralized by the Trump administration; they’ll also be tasked with the unprecedented challenge of coordinating a significant share of our country’s attempts to prepare for—or possibly try to prevent—the worst effects of climate change.
What institutional knowledge is left at the agency will be critical to realizing those goals. Along with the headquarters re-re-location, Secretary Haaland also announced Monday plans to create a new “western hub” in the existing Grand Junction office, as well as an employee-led steering committee. She says that committee will, “represent all parts of the BLM,” as it makes new hires and reorganizes a new staff. In the meantime, the Colorado office will be tasked with managing the agency’s conservation, recreation, renewable energy, and tribal coordination programs.