5 challenges facing Stone-Manning as BLM’s new director

By Scott Streater | 10/01/2021 12:26 PM EST

The Senate yesterday confirmed Tracy Stone-Manning as the new Bureau of Land Management director. Francis Chung/E&E News

For Tracy Stone-Manning, the hard work starts now.

After a grueling Senate confirmation process that stretched over five months, a list of major policy decisions and organizational issues awaits Stone-Manning on Day One as the Bureau of Land Management’s new director.

She’ll take over an agency with roughly 9,500 employees at a time when some staffers remain uncertain about the direction of the bureau after four turbulent years under President Trump, which included the move of BLM’s headquarters and hundreds of positions out of Washington.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last month announced to employees in an online staff meeting that she’s undoing that signature Trump-era move, bringing the top BLM personnel back to D.C. from Colorado (E&E News PM, Sept. 17). It will fall to Stone-Manning to guide this complicated process, including hiring dozens of new managers and supervisors who left the bureau last year rather than relocate.

But that’s not all Stone-Manning will deal with.

There are drought conditions and wildfires still raging across federal lands in the West. She’ll have to balance pressure from Republicans to resume a normal oil and natural gas lease sale process with the White House’s ambition to ramp up renewable energy development. And then there are just the complications inherent to quickly putting together a senior leadership team.

"Tracy Stone-Manning will be inheriting a mess as the incoming BLM director," Bob Abbey, who served in the position during President Obama’s first term in office, told E&E News.

But she’s up to the task, said Neil Kornze, who followed Abbey as BLM director in 2014 and who, until yesterday, was the bureau’s last Senate-confirmed director. He left the day before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

"Tracy brings an extraordinary level of experience to the job, and she’s one of the hardest-working people I know," Kornze told E&E News.

"In the days ahead, I’m certain she’ll be reaching out to all corners of the agency to ask what she can do to support their work and to get their input on the agency’s priorities," he added.

With that in mind, here are five top priorities observers both within and outside the bureau say Stone-Manning will need to address swiftly:

1. Restructure BLM’s senior leadership team

With Stone-Manning now at BLM, major senior staff changes are expected.

It’s common for a new director to organize the bureau with handpicked career and political staffers who share the current administration’s view of the bureau’s role in managing public lands.

As BLM’s new director, Stone-Manning is subject to a federal moratorium on "involuntary reassignments" of career Senior Executive Service (SES) employees until she has been on the job for 120 days.

But Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is not, having crossed that threshold in July.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke orchestrated a major purge of top BLM leaders in June 2017, shortly after the 120-day window closed. It included transferring the state directors of New Mexico, Alaska and Colorado to other Interior Department agencies (Greenwire, June 27, 2017).

A similar reshuffling of senior leadership could be on tap for BLM in the coming months, sources said.

BLM Deputy Director of Policy and Programs Nada Culver — who, like Stone-Manning, joined BLM after leaving a senior leadership post at a national conservation group — is expected to stay. Culver has been leading BLM on a temporary basis since joining the bureau in March.

In August, BLM moved out former Alaska State Director Chad Padgett, hired during the Trump administration, to a senior aide’s position in the bureau’s headquarters office. Padgett left the bureau a short time later and is now director of Republican Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan’s state office based in Anchorage (Greenwire, Aug. 27).

The bureau in the past couple of months has advertised at least three state director positions in Alaska, New Mexico and Wyoming — all currently led by acting directors. In addition, state directors appointed during the Trump administration are under review and could be transferred to other positions, sources said.

And speculation has swirled for months that Stone-Manning will select a new deputy director of operations, the top career position responsible for overseeing the daily activities of the bureau and its employees.

Mike Nedd, who has worked more than 30 years at the bureau, is currently in that post. Prior to Culver’s arrival last March, he had been performing the duties of director in the first few weeks of the Biden administration (Greenwire, Jan. 27). Nedd occupied the same deputy director of operations position for most of the Trump administration.

But Laura Daniel-Davis, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, who joined Haaland last month at the online staff meeting announcing the headquarters move, singled out Nedd with "a very special thanks" for his work with staff during the transition.

Nedd is conducting so-called listening sessions with bureau managers and supervisors through the first week of November as part of an ongoing effort "to promote trust, transparency, and sharing information," he wrote in an internal email to staff (Greenwire, Sept. 3).

2. Execute BLM’s move back to Washington

Haaland’s headquarters decision involves a lot more than simply restoring BLM’s national office in D.C.

Her plan also calls for converting the current BLM headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., into a Western hub, where she said some senior leaders would be stationed.

"I feel very confident about the move that we’re going to make," Haaland told reporters last month. "I think it’s going to work out really well."

Overseeing the move back to Washington will fall to Stone-Manning.

There are many unresolved issues surrounding the relocation plan that have yet to be answered, and Stone-Manning will be involved in sorting them out. Those include questions about how many senior staffers and specific positions will be moved out of Grand Junction and how many will stay (Greenwire, Sept. 20).

The Trump-era relocation of the headquarters to Colorado — which also included moving hundreds of other D.C.-based employees to bureau state offices across the West — resulted in 287 of the 328 staffers ordered to move leaving BLM, through either retirement or finding positions at other Interior agencies (E&E News PM, Jan. 28).

"Well, I mean, it cost us over 200 valued, experienced career employees who felt that they couldn’t uproot themselves the way the [Trump] administration wanted them to, you know, in something like 30 days, or whatever it was," Haaland told reporters last month. "I feel bad for those people still."

Not only did this result in the loss of institutional knowledge, but it also created key vacancies that have yet to be filled. About one-third of the vacant headquarters positions remain unfilled, Haaland said earlier this year (Greenwire, July 23).

But while the hiring process has begun, it cannot be completed until Interior and BLM determine what positions will be moved to Washington.

3. Gain the trust of BLM employees

"Employee morale is at a historic low," and Stone-Manning’s brutal Senate confirmation "hasn’t helped in this regard," said Abbey. He publicly opposed Stone-Manning’s nomination, mostly because of her involvement in a 1989 tree-spiking case in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest that riled Republicans and threatened to derail her nomination.

That issue took center stage during last night’s 50-45 party-line vote to confirm Stone-Manning, during which no Republicans voted in favor of her nomination (E&E Daily, Oct. 1).

While Stone-Manning did not spike any trees, and eventually helped federal prosecutors convict two men of the sabotage, she did send an anonymous letter from one of the suspects warning the Forest Service of the spiking that some Republicans deemed threatening.

"In her case, the challenge will be more complex given the partisan nature of the Senate vote and the number of questions and concerns many people still have regarding her past statements and actions," Abbey said. "She will need to earn this trust and do so quickly if she is to enjoy any success as the BLM director."

Stone-Manning is joining BLM after many staffers expressed skepticism about bureau leadership during the Trump administration. Those concerns were loud and clear in a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted last year that polled more than 4,800 bureau employees (Greenwire, April 7).

BLM employees had complained that Interior and bureau leadership during the tenure of William Perry Pendley — the conservative lawyer who led BLM for the final 18 months of the Trump presidency — kept them in the dark about the details of the relocation.

That conclusion was confirmed in a Government Accountability Office report on the headquarters move that concluded BLM did not make much effort to involve "employees and key stakeholders" in the reorganization plan (Greenwire, March 6, 2020).

"She will need to get with employees and leadership and start to address the poor morale," as well as "the controversies over her past," said Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM retirees’ group.

But Stone-Manning’s supporters say that once employees work with her and see her collaborative approach and leadership skills, any concerns they have about her will go away.

A handful of current bureau employees told E&E News on condition of anonymity that they are willing to give Stone-Manning that chance.

"I’m excited for more BLMers to get to meet her," Kornze said.

"The BLM team deserves so much better than what they experienced under the last administration," he added. "They’ll get true respect and a fresh start with director Stone-Manning at the helm."

4. Ramp up implementation of the Biden energy agenda

The Biden administration hasn’t waited to fill out top BLM personnel before starting to implement its energy agenda. Right after taking office, the president signed an executive order pausing new oil and gas leases on public lands and ordering a review of that program. A federal judge later overturned the president’s moratorium, and sales will restart this fall. The review, however, still hasn’t been released and could spell out a number of changes.

As oil and gas industry watchers wait for the White House to release its plan, BLM has prioritized expanding renewable energy development on federal lands.

BLM has already implemented measures to beef up renewable energy production on public lands, with the bureau restarting renewable energy permitting offices shuttered by the Trump administration. BLM is exploring updating royalty payments and fees, as well as the permitting process for wind, solar and geothermal power projects.

President Biden has set a goal of permitting 25,000 megawatts of new onshore wind, solar and geothermal power projects on federal lands by 2025.

BLM last month announced it plans to hold the first-ever solar competitive lease sale under rules approved in late 2016 in the closing months of the Obama administration. That lease sale is scheduled to take place in November (E&E News PM, Sept. 9).

Stone-Manning will have a personal ally to lean on in Daniel-Davis, who is also expected to be confirmed by the Senate as Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, which oversees BLM. Daniel-Davis is the former chief of policy and advocacy at the National Wildlife Federation, and both worked together at the conservation group.

Daniel-Davis said last week during an online symposium celebrating BLM’s 75th anniversary that the bureau has more than 40 renewable energy projects in the permitting pipeline that would be capable of producing, or moving through the power grid, about 17,000 MW of electricity (E&E News PM, Sept. 23).

There are other big-ticket items that will need to be addressed early in Stone-Manning’s tenure as BLM director.

Among them is reopening the deeply divisive issue of greater sage grouse management.

The decision to do so, announced last month, will set up a fierce debate over how to mange the bird, an icon of the American West (Greenwire, Sept. 8).

The sage grouse occupies an enormous range stretching across 11 Western states. The Obama administration’s sage grouse plan, finalized in September 2015 after years of collaboration, drew praise from some lawmakers but fierce criticism from other Western leaders. Those critics fear it would slow energy development, mining activity and other activities on federal lands overlapping grouse habitat.

The Trump administration in 2019 made substantial revisions to the Obama-era plans, easing mandates in ways that garnered support from both Republican and Democratic governors in the West.

A federal judge blocked BLM from implementing the revisions.

Stone-Manning is clearly on the side of the original Obama-era blueprint, praising the "wonderful" collaboration in finalizing the plans in 2015 during her Senate confirmation hearing in June (E&E Daily, June 9).

"My concern was that the Trump administration had not given those plans time to work," she testified.

5. Gird for ongoing GOP backlash

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), former Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and other supporters of Stone-Manning have lauded her as someone adept at building bridges and working with all stakeholders on complicated environmental and land-use issues. Indeed, she has a lengthy track record of collaboration while working as Bullock’s chief of staff, and as director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

But those skills will be tested at BLM.

Stone-Manning’s confirmation won’t silence Senate Republicans staunchly opposed to her leading BLM.

A group of eight prominent Republican senators gave often impassioned speeches on the Senate floor yesterday urging their Democratic colleagues to vote against her.

All 50 Democratic senators voted to confirm Stone-Manning.

Republicans have warned that the tree-spiking case, and Stone-Manning’s responses to the Senate regarding it, will be a continual issue during her tenure.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said yesterday during a floor speech that the issue will come up every time Stone-Manning represents BLM before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"What I can tell you is when she comes before the committee that we sit on, where we have oversight of the BLM … how will we believe one word she says?" Risch said.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee echoed Risch.

"If confirmed, she’ll lack the credibility with constituents throughout the nation that she would otherwise need to perform this job. She just won’t have it," Lee said prior to Stone-Manning’s confirmation. "Any accomplishments made by the Biden administration to steward our lands will be overshadowed by her specter of deceit."

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) dismissed such criticism, telling senators yesterday there’s no evidence Stone-Manning misled anyone on the tree-spiking issue, and no reason to continue debating the point.

"This is a person that basically has given herself to public service," Manchin said. "And this is a person who basically deserves the opportunity to be able to serve all of us in America with her knowledge, her desire and her absolute unwavering dedication to the outdoors and everything that we hold near and dear."