WASHINGTON — Selma Sierra will take over as director of the Utah state office for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency told the Deseret Morning News on Sunday.

Sierra will replace Henri Bisson, who has been the acting director since former director Sally Wisely went to the Colorado office a year ago. The Utah BLM office manages almost 23 million acres of public land and 35.2 million acres of subsurface mineral real estate, according to the agency.

Sierra has been the BLM chief of staff in the Washington, D.C., office since April 2005 after serving as acting chief of staff since May 2004. Prior to that, she had been the agency's assistant director for communications since 2003, according to the department. She is likely to start in the Utah office sometime in the fall.

Before serving in the Interior department from 1995 to 2001, Sierra was press secretary to Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M. She was assistant director at the Commerce Department from 2001 to 2003.

Her communications background will help her manage the sometimes conflicting priorities of developers and conservationists, according to BLM Deputy Director Jim Hughes.

"Utah has some of the classic BLM battles," Hughes said. "She's going to have her basket full of issues."

From RS 2477 land claim issues, court rulings, wilderness designations and balancing energy development, such as oil shale, with wildlife protection goals, Sierra will have to communicate to the public what the BLM is doing while also listening to the people, Hughes said.

A native of La Union, N.M., Sierra is familiar with Western issues. She also has experience at various levels of government so she can understand the different relationships the governor's office, a congressional office or an environmental group has with BLM, Hughes said. She received bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and government in 1979 from New Mexico State University.

She was deputy chief of staff to former New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers from 1987 to 1988. She first went to Interior as an assistant for external affairs to Secretary Manuel Lujan. She became deputy assistant secretary for Human Resources Management at the Department in 1989 and served in that position until January 1993, when she became deputy press secretary for the House Ways and Means Committee.

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Earlier this month, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., called for an investigation into the Utah BLM office after concerns that Bisson and Hughes had agreed to land-use plans to benefit the oil and gas industry were raised by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Hughes said that had nothing to do with the timing of Sierra's appointment.

Hughes said the department had Sierra ready to move forward earlier this year, but former Interior Secretary Gale Norton resigned, freezing the process. Once new Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was sworn in, the process picked up again, and the department could move forward with her appointment.

State director appointments for Idaho and Montana may be next, Hughes said.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com