Tracy Stone-Manning fell in love with the West in less than a weekend. Thirty years ago she flew from her home in Maryland to visit the University of Montana and decided if she didn’t get into graduate school there, she’d wait tables. She was accepted into the environmental studies program and stayed, meeting her husband and then spending their honeymoon backpacking across western Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. She went on to serve as executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, director of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, and senior advisor to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
And now she heads back east—to Washington, DC to be exact—as director of the Bureau of Land Management. The agency oversees about 245 million acres of western land, and ithas been through five years of upheaval and dysfunction—it operated without a confirmed director for several years, and then lost nearly 300 staffers after lawmakers moved its headquarters from the nation’s capital to Grand Junction, Colorado.
Like most political appointees in today’s polarized world, Stone-Manning, 56, is either poised to save the American West or destroy it. Her confirmation hearing included statements from Senators saying she is a “dedicated public servant” and others saying she “colluded with eco-terrorists” when, more than three decades ago she retyped a letter from an acquaintance to the Forest Service warning of a tree-spiking incident. Her testimony resulted in the imprisonment of two people for the tree spiking–a dangerous practice where metal spikes are impaled into trees to try and prevent logging.
Ask those who live, work, and play out West what any of that means for the future, and you won’t get a definitive answer. They just want to get to work with the first confirmed director of BLM in five years, said Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
Tawney met Stone-Manning decades ago with her work as director of the Clark Fork Coalitionfinding compromise on a polluted, controversial river in western Montana. He believes she has a “proven record of finding compromise between pretty diverse parties.” She can take an agency like BLM and set it right.
For Jason Baldes, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in central Wyoming and National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal buffalo program manager, Stone-Manning joins a growing list of federal officials—among them Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and USDA’s Heather Dawn Thompson—who will think about land more holistically.
“The priority must shift from economic incentive to more ecological incentive,” he said. “The interconnectedness of so many places, the wildlife migrations, the cultural historical areas, the burial grounds, they have to include that Native voice and involve the Tribes.”
Stone-Manning was confirmed by the Senate on September 30, and recently outlined that vision for the West’s public lands in an exclusive interview with Outside. (The conversation was edited for clarity.)
OUTSIDE: What does it mean to have a director of BLM for the first time in five years? TRACY STONE-MANNING: A confirmed director lends long-term vision and leadership that the agency deserves, and that our communities and the lands themselves deserve.
Your confirmation hearing was contentious. How do you manage an agency like BLM in the face of this kind of polarization? Will you be able to move the agency forward?Yes, absolutely. I think that transparency—and honesty and frankness—earns respect. And it’s how I operate. People are ready and hungry to dig into solving some real problems in the agency and real challenges for the landscape in the future.
What are your top priorities for BLM?The first one is the rebuild.
The second is twofold: We’re in the middle of a climate crisis. We’re in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. It’s something we have to address seriously and quickly. And the way to do that is, in part, to restore habitat. We need to put wildlife acres back on the board that aren’t on the board today.
And that, of course, dovetails right into recreation. We have a quickly growing use of our public lands. And for those of us who have our favorite secret spots, and who used to see two cars at the trailhead, and now see 25. Fast forward 20 years, and those numbers are going to be even bigger. We have a real obligation to get ahead of the growth.
As people like to say, ‘the good Lord isn’t making any more land.’ We’ve got to get smarter and better about how we manage plans for recreation so that people have the same kind of experience we have today.
Lastly, the President has called on us to turn the corner on fossil fuels and reach for a clean energy economy. And BLM has a giant role in that work. But we have to be smart about how and where we do that so we don’t conflict with the places where people recreate or places that are key wildlife habitat.
As you say, we have no more land and an increasing population, how do you start to figure that puzzle out?The go-to, for me, is to ask people on the ground about the issue. Step one is understanding who currently uses these lands and why. Step two is understanding who’s not using these lands and why. And if the why are barriers that we can fix, we need to fix them.
As the U.S. continues to grow, people who have been wildly fortunate enough to not have to engage in any process, who could just put hiking boots on and roll, that kind of change is going to be hard. But it’s a change that we have to make, so that we don’t love these places to death. So that 40 years from now, nobody goes there because it’s too crowded and trashed.
The good news is there are some popular sites that are overcrowded, and then there are hundreds of places that people don’t know about. We need to steer people appropriately to those hidden gems so that we can alleviate some of the pressure.
There’s a good example from the Park Service: over the summer there was a four-hour wait to do the hike at Angel’s Landing in [Zion National Park,] a place that is surrounded by spectacularly beautiful country, where you could not have to wait and still go on a hike. So I think we just need to get better and smarter about how to invite people to other places.
What do you say to someone who is concerned that that’s just going to put humans everywhere, especially areas where wildlife take refuge?It’s the age-old conundrum that the agency has always dealt with, balancing the needs of wildlife and humans. People are smart, we will figure out where those places are on our own. So the agency should probably be a step in front of the public in guiding people and steering people towards those places that are ready to receive the extra attention.
It also comes back to that notion of a shared responsibility about place. There’s going to have to be some parameters on how we access them so that we’re fair to each other and that we preserve wildlife.
We’ve done that before. As a culture, we’ve done it through hunting. We have shared understanding and regulations about where we can take an animal, where, when and why. We need a shared understanding of where we can recreate and what the parameters around it are for the people and the wildlife we serve.
Management planning looks at what you can accommodate and designs services and facilities that can accommodate people in places with the least impact. Do you need toilet facilities at a given trailhead?
What is your vision in terms of access and public land and making sure that they’re not being overused?We’re not making any more land, but we can open up access to land. In Arizona, we just did a Land and Water Conservation Fund purchase. It was 2,500 acres that opened up 30,000 acres of public lands. That kind of work is clearly important going forward because there’s just no reason on God’s green earth that we should lock up public lands by accident because it’s surrounded by private land.
What, realistically, do you feel you can accomplish?Three years is short. I do think we can accomplish quite a bit. We have to. Are we going to solve those crises in one administration? Of course not. But can we get the fundamentals laid and the work starting, so that we really make headway on the problems? Absolutely.
How do you build continuity into the management of a quarter billion acres over various administrations?
Rebuilding the staff, the career staff that is there for the long haul. When administrations change, priorities change, but the fundamentals, if we build it, right, stay the same. And certainly the expression and the will of the American public stays the same.
How do you achieve balance between renewables, oil and gas, recreation and all other uses of public lands?Two-hundred forty-five million acres is a lot of land that has a lot of needs, from a lot of different constituencies.
Multiple use doesn’t mean every single acre has all those uses. It means being smart about all those uses. Where is it appropriate to do oil and gas development? Where is it appropriate to do renewable energy? Where is it appropriate to have dispersed recreation versus campsites?
Who do you see as the BLM user of the future?
Ideally, 40 years from now, the typical BLM user is the demographic of the United States of America—that people enjoying our public lands are this full suite of what America looks like.
In a region that has so much economic dependence on extractive minerals and energy and agriculture, how do you help these folks feel comfortable about where the direction of BLM is headed?Anytime you sit down with a person, when you’re frank and honest with them and listening to their needs and what they’re solving for, you can find solutions.
Let’s look at restoration and invasive grass. The first go-to partner there is the ranching community. They know it’s a problem. We know it’s a problem. We can and will work together.
There’s a huge responsibility for our public lands to provide livelihoods and jobs and economies for our communities. Public lands are still going to drive the economies of the West. And recreation is a giant driver in that.
Any other parting thoughts for readers?The public has a remarkable responsibility and a remarkable power in how we manage and use our public lands. Everything from how the public uses its voice to how they use the lands themselves. We are all responsible for making sure that we don’t love these lands to death.
We at BLM are responsible for being the managers and stewards of these 245 million acres for the American public, but we cannot do it without the American public weighing in and being part of the work and the solution.