Wyoming’s senior U.S. Sen. John Barrasso offered harsh criticism of President Joe Biden’s nominee to run the Bureau of Land Management last week, underscoring what experts describe as an increasing politicization of the typically bureaucratic role.
In a Capitol Hill hearing last week, Barrasso expressed significant reservations about Tracy Stone-Manning — currently Biden’s environmental policy adviser — and her purported plans for the agency. The BLM manages more than 247 million acres of federal lands and nearly one-third of the nation’s minerals.
Stone-Manning’s career has been “defined by her support for policies that restrict multiple-use activities on public lands,” Barrasso said in his opening remarks. The environmental policy adviser opposes the “American energy dominance” agenda pushed for by Barrasso and other Republicans in Congress, he said.
He also accused Stone-Manning of political bias for criticizing congressional Republicans’ opposition to Biden’s nominee to head the Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland. She called that opposition “nothing more than a dog-whistle reserved for a candidate of Haaland’s tribal status and gender.”
“I look forward to hearing Ms. Stone-Manning’s explanation for why Republicans like me, Senator [Steve] Daines, and other colleagues on this side of the dais should have confidence that she will work with us in good faith and in a bipartisan fashion,” Barrasso said in his opening remarks.
Barrasso’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The BLM manages 18.4 million acres in Wyoming, roughly one third of the state’s land area, and 42.9 million acres of federal mineral estate, leaving Wyoming and its minerals-centric economy highly susceptible to federal public land policy.
But public policy experts say Barrasso’s vehement opposition to the director nominee represents a new approach to the bureaucratic post. While the agency’s actions have long been politicized, approval of the individual who runs the agency has typically not. While the director may be tasked with implementing elements of contentious policy — like Biden administration programs to combat climate change, for example — the positions lacks many of the powers and discretion afforded to cabinet-level jobs like the energy secretary or secretary of the interior.
“There are a lot of people in a lot of positions,” said David Willms, a former policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead and a former colleague of Stone-Manning “You have the state BLM agency, other state BLM directors, you have regional field offices, you’ve got headquarters, you’ve got all these different layers you have to go through to implement any policies. It’s hard. It’s hard for one person to do it alone.
“I guess that’s one of the benefits of a big bureaucracy,” he said. “It can be very difficult for somebody to come in and make big ideological changes in a short timeframe.”
The politics of the BLM
For a long time, the primary focus of the BLM was simple: the management of federal lands to generate revenue. As such, there was very little issue with who ran the agency. The only question was whether a leader could do the job, and do it well.
“There used to not be so much difference between whether it was a Democratic or Republican appointee, because they were land managers,” said Leisl Carr-Childers, a historian of the Bureau of Land Management at Colorado State University.
That paradigm shifted with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, however, Carr-Childers said. With FLPMA, the BLM changed the manner in which it managed minerals and grazing on public lands, mandated the permanent federal ownership of public lands, and altered its mission from a solely revenue-generating mission to one of “multiple use.”
But FLPMA also created significant friction in American politics, spurring a national uprising against the federal government known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” The ethic of that rebellion — an opposition to the policies of the BLM and the large holdings of land by the federal government — persists today.
Despite these tensions, however, the actual office holder of the director of the Bureau of Land Management was not typically subject to such controversy, said Carr-Childers. Though the BLM is the agency responsible for directives set by Congress and the president, the director of the agency is simply a facilitator of those policies, and removed from the vitriol directed at the agency writ large.
“The view was always that the president gets to pick their people,” Willms said. “The people elected the president so the president gets to pick [his] people who run these agencies. The hearing is usually a procedural matter and the votes were more often than not bipartisan, if not close to unanimous. Even though the work gets to be very political, the appointments of the heads wasn’t.”
Confirmation voting records support that point. The last BLM director to be confirmed by Congress, Obama-nominee Neil Kornze, received Senate confirmation by a 71–28 vote (Barrasso and then-Sen. Mike Enzi, notably, both voted no). Obama’s first nominee in 2009, Robert Abbey, was confirmed by a voice vote, while Bush-era nominees like Kathleen Clarke (who elicited controversy for her stances on mineral extraction) also faced little resistance.
The Senate did not hold a hearing or confirmation vote on the position during Donald Trump’s presidency. Of the four directors to lead the BLM under Trump, his final selection, Cheyenne resident and Sagebrush Rebellion attorney William Perry Pendley, was seen as most partisan, holding views of public land that ran counter to decades of agency culture.
“These appointees typically don’t have political agendas so much as they have managerial agendas,” Carr-Childers said. “But that changes and becomes incredibly disrupted during the Trump administration.”
“As a voter, my question going forward is who’s going to fix the land management problem we have and put land managers in charge?” Carr-Childers said. “This is our most precious real estate, whether it’s run by the BLM, the Forest Service or the Park service or Fish and Wildlife Service. This is the most precious resource we have, and we demand a lot from it. But it can’t be everything to everyone.”
Pressure from up top?
The GOP’s current opposition to nominees like Stone-Manning, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and even Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm (approved by a 65-35 vote earlier this year) reflects an increasing and further reaching polarization in Congress, according to James Skillen, an expert in federal land and resource policy at Calvin University. As such, senators who cross the aisle may find themselves in the crosshairs of their conservative base.
Opposition to the presidential appointees, Skillen said, is oftentimes less about the beliefs or qualifications of the nominees than about the president’s policies.
Several weeks ago, Barrasso voted against Granholm’s nomination, saying “I’m not going to sit idly by … while the Biden administration enforces policies that threaten Wyoming’s economy and the lifebloods of so many people in my state.” He later praised Granholm during a press conference at the Wyoming Capitol for her work in helping bring an experimental nuclear power plant to the state, potentially creating numerous jobs.
“If you’re trying to show your opposition to the Biden climate agenda, there’s no space to take a nuanced view in these hearings, to say you oppose the climate agenda but [the nominee] seems qualified for this job,” Skillen said. “Republican members of Congress are under enormous pressure to oppose everything that comes from the Biden administration.”
“I don’t think there’s very much substance left in these hearings that you can read into,” he said.
Alaskan Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski became a recent example of politicians being punished for inadequate opposition when she drew the ire of the former president for her vote to confirm Haaland. Haaland later suspended oil and gas leasing in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. However, Murkowski has a history of confirming presidential nominees regardless of their policy positions, and backed Haaland, she said in a statement on her website, with the understanding that the nominee would take Alaskan concerns under consideration when implementing Biden policies.
“People like Murkowski, [Utah Sen. Mitt] Romney, these are people using the same rhetoric of an older Washington, that we should appoint people who are qualified, even if we disagree with some of their policies,” Skillen said.