BLM taps new Idaho director

By Scott Streater | 02/17/2022 04:16 PM EST

An agency logo inside the Bureau of Land Management offices in Washington.

The Bureau of Land Management announced a new Idaho state director. Francis Chung/E&E News

Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning announced today that a career official with more than 20 years of experience at the agency will lead its Idaho office.

Karen Kelleher, currently the associate state director in BLM Arizona’s office since 2018, will take over next month as director of the Idaho office, which oversees 12 million acres of federal lands, or nearly a quarter of the Gem State’s total land area.

Kelleher will take the reins of the state office in mid-March, replacing Peter Ditton, BLM Idaho’s associate state director, who has filled in as acting state director since August, after John Ruhs retired from the bureau. Ditton will return to his previous role as associate Idaho state director, Stone-Manning wrote in an email to the executive leadership team members.

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“As we continue to rebuild the BLM, leadership has never been more important. That’s why I’m pleased to announce the appointment of Karen Kelleher as the Idaho State Director,” Stone-Manning wrote in her email.

“Karen brings a wealth of experience to her new position as Idaho State Director,” Stone-Manning added.

BLM later formally announced Kelleher’s hiring.

Stone-Manning wrote in her email that Kelleher has recently held “key leadership positions,” such as “Senior Advisor to Assistant Secretary-Land and Minerals Management, Deputy Assistant Director for Resources and Planning in Washington, D.C., and since 2018, as the Associate State Director for BLM’s Arizona State Office.”

Kelleher’s appointment is part of a concerted effort by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the Biden administration to beef up staffing at BLM by filling positions that have remained, in some cases, vacant for years.

BLM Deputy Director of Operations Mike Nedd told BLM staffers in an email last week that President Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget includes money to “hire an additional 600 staff members in addition to filling our current vacancies” (Greenwire, Feb. 9).

Stone-Manning told bureau staff last year that her top priority in 2022 is “fixing staff shortages” (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2021).

Some of those vacancies were the result of the Trump administration’s 2019 decision to relocate BLM’s Washington-based headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., and transfer hundreds of other positions out West. The move spurred at least 135 employees to leave the bureau through retirement or to work at other Interior Department agencies.

Haaland announced last year she is reversing the BLM move — which was completed in 2020 — and relocating the national headquarters back to Washington. The Grand Junction office is being converted to a Western hub.

In addition to overall staffing, BLM has been working to fill several state director positions that are currently held by acting directors.

The bureau last month announced that Andrew Archuleta, a 15-year career employee, will take over the BLM Wyoming office, which manages 17.5 million acres of public lands and 40 million acres of subsurface mineral estate (Greenwire, Jan. 27).

Archuleta will take over the BLM Wyoming office this month, the bureau said.

With Kelleher’s appointment, there are now four acting directors among BLM’s 12 state offices.

Announcements are expected in the coming weeks for permanent directors in Alaska and New Mexico, and after that in Colorado and the Montana-Dakotas office.

Stone-Manning wrote that she and Nedd “would like to take the opportunity to thank Peter Ditton for his steady leadership” while leading the Idaho state office as acting director.

Wide-ranging career

Kelleher has had a lengthy, and varied, career at BLM, including serving as manager of the nearly 500,000-acre Sonoran Desert National Monument in Arizona.

She has been involved in major policy issues in recent years, most notably concerning management of the greater sage grouse.

The issue is among the most contentious public lands issues, as the sage grouse occupy an enormous 11-state range covering millions of acres of federal lands managed for multiple uses.

While serving as deputy assistant director of resources and planning in 2017, Kelleher was appointed as coordinator of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Sage Grouse Review Team, which ultimately recommended significant changes to the Obama-era sage grouse protection blueprint that had been finalized in 2015.

Nedd, the BLM deputy director of operations who at the time was the bureau’s acting director, appointed Kelleher to the coordinator post in June 2017.

Zinke’s successor, David Bernhardt, approved changes to the Obama plans in March 2019, including a number of provisions making it easier to drill for oil and gas or conduct mining activity within sensitive grouse habitat. The changes sparked years of litigation, a federal judge’s order blocking the Trump administration’s changes, and now, under Biden, a new effort to once again review and likely revise the sage grouse management plans finalized in September 2015.

Among the most vocal critics of the Trump revisions was Stone-Manning, who was then serving as senior adviser for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation, and current BLM Deputy Director of Policy and Programs Nada Culver, who at the time was vice president for public lands and senior policy counsel at the National Audubon Society.

BLM last fall reopened the federal grouse management plans and will likely update them to address growing threats to the bird and its habitat from climate change, wildfires and the spread of invasive species, among other things (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2021).

As far back as 2007, Kelleher was a field manager in the Wenatchee Field Office in BLM’s Washington-Oregon State Office.

She later served as manager of BLM’s Anchorage District Office in Alaska.

Kelleher earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Union College in New York and a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University.

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