Long viewed as a relative backwater agency, the Bureau of Land Management actually has enormous sway over Americans' everyday lives: the agency decides who gets to do what on about a tenth of all the land in the U.S., from where companies can drill to where people recreate.
Jordy Rossman, who was hiking recently at a popular BLM trailhead near Boise, Idaho, said, "It's pristine land, it's just untouched."
Rossman uses these lands all the time to hunt, fish and hike.
"It's just beautiful, you've got the foothills right here, you go a 10-minute drive up there and you've got forest and pine trees," she said.
At crowded access points like this, Patagonia-clad hikers, their pups on leashes, mingle with cyclists on pricey mountain bikes who share the trails with ATVs and dirt bikes.
Public lands are strained by overuse and years of neglected infrastructure projects. The pandemic made both worse. Add climate and wildfires, cattle grazing fights, and oil companies suing over a freeze on new leasing, and you've got a cocktail of high stakes drama facing Tracy Stone-Manning, if she's confirmed as the next agency director.
That confirmation hearing is Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee.
Stone-Manning is a longtime Montana-based environmentalist who worked as an aide to Sen. Jon Tester and former Governor Steve Bullock, both Democrats. She also headed up her home state's top environmental regulatory agency. She's currently a senior advisor for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation, which played a role advising President Biden on public lands and infrastructure restoration during his transition last fall.
If confirmed as the administration's next public lands chief, Stone-Manning will be one of the top point people to oversee the President's ambitious infrastructure plan that includes millions in proposed spending to restore ecosystems and clean water sources across an area roughly the size of Alaska and Texas combined.
Taking heat from both sides
The federal Bureau of Land Management never had a Senate-confirmed director under former President Trump. Stone-Manning, who hasn't done interviews ahead of her confirmation hearing, would be a huge reversal from the agency's last leader, William Perry Pendley. Pendley once questioned whether the U.S. government should even own public lands and continued to lead the agency even after a federal judge ruled his serving as acting director was illegal.
Unlike in Pendley's tenure, when Stone-Manning goes before the Senate, Republicans will get a chance to grill her about her environmental activism at the University of Montana in the 1980s, followed by a brief stint working at Earth First.
Chas Vincent, a former Republican state lawmaker in Montana, said her early career came up in local politics there, too, as the state senate panel he once led considered her nomination to run the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
"She knows how to take heat from both sides, is something that I think is a good takeaway from her experience in Montana," Vincent said.
Vincent, who runs a family logging company and has consulted for the oil and gas industry, said Stone-Manning quickly proved to be a realist, not an idealist.
"Where I think she will excel is her ability and her experience in collaboration and listening to both sides of an issue and being able to come up with a solution that might not make everybody happy, but it will suffice," Vincent said.
Bringing people together
In Montana, throughout her career, Stone-Manning developed a reputation as someone would could broker a bipartisan compromise, certainly a rarity in Washington, D.C.
Colin O'Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said that is sorely needed at the Bureau of Land Management today, which was wracked by scandals and plagued with low morale during the Trump era. The agency's headquarters was also in the process of being relocated from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction, Colo. (pop. 62,000), a move that had sparked outcry from many longtime employees.
"She's one of the few people in the country that can actually bring people together around our public lands at a time when we desperately need to," O'Mara said.
Bringing disparate sides together was the storyline of one of Stone-Manning's biggest career achievements, long before she formally entered government life.
Twenty years ago, as head of the non profit Clark Fork Coalition, she brokered a deal with environmentalists, timber interests and British Petroleum to remove an old dam near the city of Missoula. A century's worth of toxic mining sediment had built up in a reservoir threatening the region's water supply.
"What Tracy brought to the Milltown Dam removal was the belief that government is capable of big things and she was able to bring people together to give government the support to accomplish that," said David Brooks, who wrote a book about that fight.
Remove the dam, restore the river
One recent chilly Spring morning, Brooks stood at a viewing area above what was once part of one of the nation's largest federal Superfund sites at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers.
"Upstream we're looking at the Clark Fork River where it's been restored in nice, natural meanders and wetlands," Brooks said, beaming.
The land is now a state park. The since-removed dam used to power one of the biggest timber mills in the Northwest. The reservoir behind it was popular with anglers. But toxicity levels in the water were high and local officials had warned of a looming catastrophe that an earthquake or ice jam could cause.
At a time when much of the environmental movement was focused on protecting places, Brooks said, Stone-Manning was an early advocate of restoration. She sold the plan as a way to revitalize towns that built the West. Today, alongside the state park, there are new small manufacturing companies that have cropped up alongside a craft brewery and summer concert amphitheater for a popular summer concert series.
"What Tracy brought to the Milltown Dam removal was the belief that government is capable of big things," Brooks said. "She was able to bring people together to give government the support to accomplish that."
Pitching that big government can accomplish big things will again be one of Stone-Manning's marching orders, should she be confirmed as President Biden's U.S. public lands chief.