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Montana Environmentalist Is Biden's Pick To Head Bureau Of Land Management


President Biden's infrastructure plan asks Congress to spend millions to restore ecosystems and clean water sources across an area roughly the size of Texas and Alaska combined. An environmentalist from Montana will likely be the administration's point person to oversee that work if funding comes through. Tracy Stone-Manning has been nominated to be the country's next public lands chief. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the Federal Bureau of Land Management did not have a Senate-confirmed director for the entire Trump administration.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Long viewed as a relative backwater agency, the Bureau of Land Management actually has enormous sway over Americans' everyday lives, deciding 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 can recreate.

JORDY ROSSMAN: It's just pristine land. It's untouched.

SIEGLER: Public lands enthusiast Jordy Rossman is hiking at a popular Bureau trailhead in the foothills just above Boise, Idaho.

ROSSMAN: I'm a huntress. I fish. I mean, I use them every way I can, honestly (laughter).

SIEGLER: At crowded access points like this, Patagonia-clad hikers, their pups on leashes, mingle with cyclists on pricey mountain bikes, who then share the trails with ATVs and dirt bikes.


SIEGLER: Public lands are strained by overuse and years of neglected infrastructure projects. Add climate and wildfires, cattle grazing fights and now 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.

CHAS VINCENT: She knows how to take heat from both sides - is something that, I think, is a good takeaway from her experience in Montana.

SIEGLER: Chas Vincent, a logger and former Republican state lawmaker in Montana, got to know Stone-Manning when she led that state's top environmental agency. She also worked for Senator Jon Tester and later, Montana's former governor, Steve Bullock - both Democrats - and developed a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker. Collin O'Mara is CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, where Stone-Manning is currently a senior adviser.

COLLIN O'MARA: She's, you know, maybe one of the few people in the country that can actually bring people together around our public lands at a time we desperately need to.

SIEGLER: Stone-Manning, who isn't doing interviews until her confirmation hearing, would be a huge reversal from the agency's last leader, William Perry Pendley, who once questioned whether the U.S. government should even own public lands. The Trump administration was sued for allowing Pendley to run the bureau for more than a year without Senate confirmation. 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 '80s, followed by a brief stint working at Earth First! Chas Vincent, the Republican, says that came up back in Montana state politics, too. But he says she quickly proved to be a realist not idealist.

VINCENT: 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.

SIEGLER: That's the storyline of one of Stone-Manning's biggest career achievements. Twenty years ago, 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. David Brooks wrote a book about that fight.

DAVID BROOKS: Upstream, we're looking at the Clark Fork River, where it's been restored in nice, natural meanders and wetlands.

SIEGLER: He's standing above what used to be one of the nation's largest Superfund sites. The dam used to power one of the biggest timber mills in the Northwest. Now it's a state park. Nearby, there's also some new small manufacturers, a popular brewery and ampitheater. Brooks says Stone-Manning was focused on restoration, but she also sold the plan as a way to revitalize towns that built the West.

BROOKS: 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.

SIEGLER: 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.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.