BLM taps Nature Conservancy official as Alaska director

By Scott Streater | 05/06/2022 04:23 PM EDT

Steve Cohn is also a veteran of the Bureau of Land Management.

Campers return to their campsite after a hike at Tangle Lakes, Alaska.

Campers return to their campsite after a hike at Tangle Lakes, Alaska. Craig McCaa/BLM Alaska/Flickr

The Bureau of Land Management is bringing back a former senior official who left during the Trump administration to lead BLM’s Alaska state office.

Steve Cohn, who resigned as BLM’s deputy state director of resources in Alaska in 2018 to lead the Nature Conservancy’s operations in the Last Frontier, has been tapped as director of the BLM Alaska office, which oversees 72 million acres of surface lands and 220 million acres of subsurface mineral estate — far more than any other state.

“Steve brings 27 years of professional and academic natural resource management experience to his new role,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement. “He is a highly skilled and respected policy expert on Alaska public land and resources issues and his expertise will benefit the BLM and Alaska constituencies we serve.”


Cohn is expected to take over the Alaska office by the end of the month, replacing Tom Heinlein, BLM’s Anchorage district manager, who has served as acting director since last August.

Heinlein began filling in after Chad Padgett, the former Trump-era director of BLM’s Alaska office, resigned from the bureau to become director of Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan’s Alaska office (Greenwire, Aug. 27, 2021).

Padgett, who served more than two years as BLM Alaska state director, resigned shortly after he was reassigned to a senior adviser’s position at the bureau’s headquarters (E&E News PM, Aug. 6, 2021).

Padgett was hired as Alaska director in February 2019 after a decadelong stint as a senior aide to former Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who died in March. Padgett was viewed as helping facilitate former President Donald Trump’s push for “energy dominance” by promoting oil, gas and mining activity on federal lands.

Cohn, a Harvard University-educated expert on public lands policy and natural resource management, previously worked at BLM for 16 years, including his stint as deputy state director of resources from 2013 to 2018.

A couple of years after leaving the bureau, Cohn publicly objected to the Trump decision — praised by Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — to lift restrictions on logging and road construction in parts of the Tongass National Forest, which contains one of the last intact temperate rainforests on Earth (Greenwire, Oct. 29, 2020).

The move basically exempted the southeast Alaska forest from the Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which prohibits road construction and logging in certain areas of national forests, including 9.4 million acres in the Tongass.

“Over the past decade, the Tongass has moved away from conflict and litigation by encouraging collaboration and community engagement, but this decision will only bring about a return to that conflict,” Cohn said at the time in his capacity as Alaska director for the Nature Conservancy.

The Biden administration last year began the process to reverse the Trump-era move (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2021).

In a question-and-answer session on the Nature Conservancy’s website, he did not indicate that he left BLM over any philosophical differences with the Trump administration approach to federal lands management.

Rather, Cohn said he left BLM because “I reached that point in my career where I wanted to broaden my scope and work on conservation issues beyond those limited to the geography of one land management agency.”

He said he chose the Nature Conservancy because it “has a tremendous reputation as an organization that strives to build collaborative strategies to conserve lands and waters across land ownership boundaries and among people with conflicting interests. These are the kinds of solutions I’d like to help shape.”

He also offered more on this basic philosophy to federal lands management, which he developed during his time at BLM.

“Through my work with the Bureau of Land Management I built relationships with people across much of Alaska — from tribes to oil, gas and mining interests to leaders of Alaska Native corporations,” he said in the Q&A.

It will take that kind of collaboration with all stakeholders to properly manage the state’s vast natural resources for the benefit of people today and for future generations, he wrote.

He said: “In the Lower 48, the primary challenge is attempting to piece together natural systems that in many cases have already been significantly changed by human activity, leaving habitat fragmented. In Alaska, natural systems are still largely intact, though under increasing stress due to impacts from climate change, increased resource development in previously remote locations, and fiscal challenges that make investments in natural resource stewardship increasingly difficult. If we’re careful in Alaska, we may be able to do conservation right the first time and that’s an amazing opportunity.”