Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Three things are pushing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management director to get a lot done by the end of this year: the effects of climate change, the needs of future generations, and the end of President Joe Biden’s first term.

On the University of Montana campus Wednesday evening, BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning spoke to about 40 students of her alma mater, the UM Environmental Studies Program, about the future of public lands, specifically BLM lands. She highlighted some of the efforts that the agency has initiated over the past few years to make BLM lands more resilient in the face of climate change and greater extraction and recreation pressures.

“Climate change has us in an all-hands-on-deck moment, and the BLM is working hard to meet the moment and to do our part to ensure the health and protection of public lands for future generations,” Stone-Manning said. “The good news is that urgency is helping us deliver some wins for conservation.”

Stone-Manning said the proposed Public Lands Rule is close to being finalized after receiving more than 215,000 comments in July. The BLM’s proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule, also called the Public Lands Rule, will make conservation leases possible for the first time, putting conservation on equal footing with other uses, such as grazing and natural resource extraction.

Stone-Manning said the rule will safeguard the health of public lands in three ways: by protecting the best, most intact landscapes; by restoring the lands and waters that need it; and by using science and indigenous knowledge to make land decisions.

“In short, we’ll be managing for the future. We’ll manage for landscape health,” Stone-Manning said.

One hurdle for restoration is a lack of native seed. Stone-Manning recalled her surprise when visiting a BLM site in Idaho a few summers ago and seeing nonnative crested wheatgrass that BLM employees had planted the year before because they didn’t have native seeds. Nonnative plants can be detrimental to restoring a native ecosystem.

To illustrate how much better native seeds are adapted to local sites, Stone-Manning harkened back to the removal of the Milltown Dam in 2008 when she was the Clark Fork Coalition director. After the water drained from the reservoir and the land began to recover, she saw a plant growing out of nowhere.

“It was a plant from a 100-year-old seed that had been anaerobic underneath 23 feet of toxic muck. And when it got light and oxygen, it grew a plant,” Stone-Manning said. “Truly, nature is our best instruction. And talk about local ecotype, for Pete’s sake, it was as local as it came.”

To overcome the lack of native seed, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced in February that almost $18 million from the Inflation Reduction Act would fund efforts to collect and produce native seed for restoration efforts as part of the National Seed Strategy Keystone Initiative. That sparked a lot of interest among the students with some suggesting ways to grow more native seed, such as using land in and around solar panel projects.

The second win Stone-Manning listed for the BLM is an update to the Western Solar Plan that will guide solar development on public lands.

Over the past three years, the BLM has approved 45 clean energy projects - solar, geothermal and transmission - to generate 10,000 megawatts, enough to power 3.5 million homes, and more projects are in the pipeline. But, solar panel farms need to be developed in the right places so they don’t degrade healthy lands and wildlife habitat. The same applies to wind projects, but the BLM is receiving far more proposals for solar development, Stone-Manning said.

“When finalized, the (Western Solar) plan will direct development to areas with fewer sensitive resources  and close to transmission lines. And you can still comment on it,” Stone-Manning said.

Finally, Stone-Manning touted two national monuments that have been created - the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni of the Grand Canyon and Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada - and two that were restored since Biden has been in office. She credited the American public with helping to establish the two new monuments, using as an example a public meeting in Laughlin, Nev., where dozens rose to testify in support of Avi Kwa Ame.

“I have sat in a lot of divided rooms. I have seen a lot of crossed arms and set faces in my career. And that room was packed. And joyous. Every single person who spoke that day expressed some sort of support of the monument. That made Secretary Haaland’s recommendation to the president to designate the monument all the easier,” Stone-Manning said.

When asked whether the BLM could limit oil and gas leases, she emphasized that the BLM can’t do everything the public might want because it has to work within the law.

“It’s important to understand that the BLM is guided by laws that mandate our multiple-use and sustained-yield mission. Lands of many uses,” Stone-Manning said. “So that makes multiple-use not for the faint-of-heart. It’s a really hard balance to strike. But now, more than ever, we have to strike that balance.”

However, the BLM is working on a rule that would encourage oil and gas companies to lease in areas that are more developed, away from more pristine land. In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act eliminated land speculation by requiring oil and gas companies to pay a $5 per acre fee when they propose parcels for leasing and they can't make such proposals anonymously. Stone-Manning said the number of such proposals has dropped significantly since the act was passed. Prior to that, companies leased more than 10 million acres of BLM land that they have yet to develop.

The BLM is also still trying to update a rule related to grazing leases to preserve public land health. Some areas have suffered from overgrazing, but under the current rule, producers are penalized if they don’t graze the number of cows they have on their lease permit. But drought is reducing the amount of forage in some areas. So some permittees don’t run as many cattle but keep it secret, even though it’s better for the land.

“It became clear to us that we need to work with the ranching community to ensure that when we do update that rule, it lands well. And that it provides the flexibility that our permittees and we need to manage in this new landscape,” Stone-Manning said. “If drought is forcing people off, they shouldn’t be penalized if they remove their cows.”

Stone-Manning said she is trying to complete all her work before Biden’s first term ends. If Biden is not reelected, her stint as director would likely end.

Stone-Manning said her immediate priority is trying to get Congress to approve as much of her fiscal year 2025 budget as possible, after Congress slashed the BLM’s 2024 budget. Congress cut the BLM’s 2024 budget request by $81 million, including cuts to the Recreation Resources Management Program and National Conservation Lands.

Meanwhile, the number of people visiting BLM lands has risen 40% since 2020. To try to handle all those people, the BLM released the Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation last summer, which, among other goals, outlines how the agency plans to hire more people to better maintain facilities and protect the environment.

Stone-Manning graduated from the Environmental Studies Master’s program in 1992 and wanted to urge current students to follow in her footsteps because more land stewards will be needed in the future.

“For those of you studying to enter this field, thank you. Don’t blow off your classes,” Stone-Manning said. “Finish up soon, because we need you. The future depends on it.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at