Colorado’s wetlands are endangered by climate change and invasive species. New federal money will help protect them

· Jun. 3, 2023, 4:00 am
Sandhill cranes call the wetlands of the San Luis Valley home as they migrate north. A few are spotted through a birding scope on March 11, 2022Sandhill cranes call the wetlands of the San Luis Valley home as they migrate north. A few are spotted through a birding scope on March 11, 2022Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Sandhill cranes call the wetlands of the San Luis Valley home as they migrate north. A few are spotted through a birding scope on March 11, 2022

Look out at some of Colorado's most stunning places and there's a good chance that land is held by the Bureau of Land Management. 

The BLM this week announced it will invest $160 million nationwide in what it calls "restoration landscapes." Colorado will get $5 million for North Park near Walden and just more than $6 million for the San Luis Valley.

The idea is to help public lands across the West withstand new and growing challenges, like invasive species and climate change. 

“Nature is the planet's very best engineer. And if we can give nature a hand in sometimes very unobtrusive ways, with just a little bit of investment nature can take over and do the rest,” said BLM director Tracy Stone-Manning.

And there’s an additional benefit to this type of investment, she said.

“What those wetlands do for us is store water. So longer into the season there'll be water on the landscape, which is so important as the future portends to be drier and drier,” Stone-Manning said.

Tracy Stone-Manning spoke with Colorado Matters senior host Ryan Warner.

Read the interview 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

Ryan Warner: You visited both these spots last week. What stood out about each one?

Tracy Stone-Manning: Water. The San Luis Valley, we went to the Blanca Wetlands. It was incredible. So full of bird life. I'm a lifelong not-so-great-but-love-it birder, and just standing there, hearing about the projects, we were surrounded by so many species of birds. And North Park is a place that has among the largest wetland complexes in the state. There was water everywhere, which is such a precious asset and something that we have to make sure stays on the landscape.

These are funds through the Inflation Reduction Act. How will the investments change what people see or experience there in the future? Or what wildlife experiences?

So let's take North Park. We're going to invest funds in North Park to ensure that those wetlands stay wet, ensure that the creeks and rivers are connected to the landscape. And when that happens, when creeks and rivers can do their things and flow out of their banks, we create riparian wetlands. And what those wetlands do for us is store water. So longer into the season there'll be water on the landscape, which is so important as the future portends to be drier and drier.

So the operative term here is restoration landscapes. This is not refashioning the land in some newfangled way. It's a return to what once was.

Yes, absolutely. Nature is the planet's very best engineer. And if we can give nature a hand in sometimes very unobtrusive ways, with just a little bit of investment nature can take over and do the rest.

Of the 8 million or so acres the BLM manages in Colorado, why were these two particular places selected?

For a couple reasons. We have places where people are already doing good work together, and that good work can be leveraged and made deeper. And then there's a need. In North Park, that need is not only for the wetlands but for the really remarkable population of sage grouse that's on the ground. I was looking at a field that has 200 birds, sage grouse, in it in the winter. We need to make sure that we maintain that habitat so that those birds can maintain their strongholds there. And in the San Luis Valley, the wetlands that we were visiting are created with infrastructure that's really old and needs some help. And if we invest in that infrastructure today we're going to ensure that the unbelievable number of birds and wildlife and fish that use that place will continue to be able to do so for decades to come.

So I hear you saying this is a matter of need. It's also a matter of buy-in on the ground from the communities that care about these places.

That's exactly right.

I want to note that the US Supreme Court has just dealt a blow to WOTUS. That's the law, ‘Waters of the United States’ protecting wetlands. It largely has to do with private land, but do you think that this will have any effect on the sorts of wetlands you're discussing here?

The work that we're going to be doing here is on public ground, and what we're trying to do is create places for more water to do its job for people and for wildlife. And so no, there's not a connection there.

As much as people love public lands, especially in Colorado, there's a lot of disagreement over how those lands should be used and managed. The BLM under your leadership has proposed a new rule to elevate conservation and restoration, alongside other uses like grazing and extractive industry. What's your argument there?

I think everybody can agree that our job as land managers should be to ensure that we manage for landscape health. We ensure that we can leave these lands as good or better off than we found them for the future. And that's what this rule is going to enable us to do. We're going to carry on our multiple use mission because, A, it's the right thing to do for the American people, and B, it also happens to be the law. And as part of that multiple use mission, conservation and focusing on restoration will enable us to ensure that we get to do those multiple uses into the future because if we don't have a healthy landscape we're not going to be able to do that work.

You said, prefacing that, everyone agrees that landscape health is a priority, but rules like this tend to be challenged in Congress and the courts. Representative John Curtis of Utah has introduced a bill to do just that, to challenge this proposal. He has two Colorado Republicans, Lauren Boebert and Doug Lamborn as co-sponsors. Given the importance of other uses on public lands and the pushback already from some of those industries, which are strong in Colorado, how does the agency propose navigating the balance you want to strike?

I think managing for healthy wildlife habitat, managing for clean water is something that the American people want their land management agencies to do. Everybody wants wildlife on the landscape, everybody wants clean water. And so what I would urge folks to do is to dig in, go to our website, Public Lands Rule, and that's going to give a bunch of information about what the rule is and more importantly what the rule isn't. And I want to make sure that folks are armed with information about what we're trying to do.

Well that's interesting, what isn't it? In other words, is there maybe a misconception that you're fighting?

I would ask people to read what's there rather than second guess what isn't there. And I know that sounds a little cryptic, but from what I'm hearing I think people are seeing things in this rule that we are not attempting to do. 

What we are attempting to do is to ensure that in the future we're going to be able to deliver on our multiple use mandate. We're going to be able to ensure that ranchers will have healthy lands upon which to graze, that we deliver wildlife habitat for hunters and fishermen and women. And all this rule does is give us the tools to ensure we do that. We are not making one use more dominant than the other, we are just making our multiple uses equal to each other, including conservation.

In the face of climate change I wonder if at least part of your approach with a policy like this is to usher in an end or a sunsetting of fossil fuel exploration on BLM lands. If one looks at the contribution of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, that is fundamentally at odds with the sorts of sustainability that you are advocating for.

I think the president has been clear that we need to transition to a clean energy future. There's no doubt about it. But we're also implementing the laws that are on the books today, right? We are implementing the Mineral Leasing Act that was written back in the 1920s. We're implementing the Inflation Reduction Act that tells us that if we're going to do renewable energy on public lands we also have to do some oil and gas leasing. 

This is what the BLM does, right? I like to say we do all the things. We're going to continue to do all the things and what we're trying to do is do them in a really balanced and responsible way to ensure that the landscape is healthy for the future.

And the public has a big say in this. We're right in the middle of our public comment period for the Public Lands Rule and we invite your listeners to tell us what they think. The whole point of a process like this is to take a draft to the public, say, "Hey, what do you think?" Get a bunch of that feedback and make our ideas even better and stronger.

I want to talk a bit about Grand Junction, Colorado, which was the headquarters for your agency for a time. While you have moved the headquarters back to Washington, D.C., you said Grand Junction would be the BLM's western hub. Tracy, how is that developing? Have you moved additional offices out to Grand Junction? If not, is there a plan to grow the BLM presence there or regrow it?

We're still on the path to ensuring that we have a robust national headquarters office in the West, in Grand Junction. When the previous administration moved the headquarters west they scattered it all over the West, and we're bringing a portion of our headquarters anchored in Grand Junction. And I'm happy to tell you that that work is happening apace. The person who is leading our National Conservation Lands and Recreation program, which is anchored in Grand Junction, just moved his family down from Alaska this past month. And I hope people can go to, because we're hiring and we've got job postings on the site for both Grand Junction and of course all over the West.

All right. BLM hiring in Grand Junction. The Bureau lost a significant number of career staff around that transition. What are staffing levels like? I mean, you say you have open positions. Is that a function of the kind of brain trust brain loss that happened around the move?

I think it was, and there's a trickle down effect. When the headquarters was moved west by the previous administration and hundreds of people left, there were hundreds of jobs opening in the West. And many folks at BLM state offices decided to step into those headquarters roles, which of course then play dominoes. Then there are vacancies in the state offices. You put that together with a pandemic and we've got openings that I am trying to solve. But I'm happy to tell you that we are progressing in the right direction. Slowly but surely we are building the BLM to what the BLM deserves and what the American public deserves.

No doubt some of the same labor issues that just about every industry sector is dealing with.


Have you been to Grand Junction? Do you plan to go soon?

I have been to Grand Junction. Our office there is beautiful, the community's incredible. So are some of the tacos. And of course the BLM public lands around the Junction office are unmatched across the West.

When do we expect to see you on the ground in Junction again, do you think?

Oh, what a good question. I just recently spent many days in Colorado, but I was going north-south, not east-west, starting in North Park and ending in the San Luis Valley. But I do expect to bring the leadership team back to Junction in the fall like we did last year.

Tracy, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

I so appreciate your time. Thank you.

You care.

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