WASHINGTON – Democrats prepare to push through Tracy Stone-Manning’s nomination to head the Bureau of Land Management despite united opposition from Republicans who branded her an “eco-terrorist” for her involvement in a tree top episode the 1980s.
The vote scheduled for Thursday on her nomination in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources sparked a battle between Republicans and Democrats over an agency at the center of climate policy.
The Bureau of Land Management is a Home Office agency that oversees grazing, logging and drilling on 245 million acres of public land and manages 700 million acres of mineral rights. It is responsible for balancing oil, gas and coal production with recovery and the protection of natural resources. It is also critical to President Biden’s goal of phasing out state oil and gas drilling – a plan contested by 15 states led by Republican attorneys general.
“The concern a lot of people have about the Stone-Manning nomination is that it will be more on the side of protecting public land for public use, and the people who want public land to be used for more development , do not like it.” said Mark Squillace, professor of natural resource law at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“These other issues are used to block their confirmation,” he said. “I don’t think anyone cares what she did 32 years ago.”
Ms. Stone-Manning, 55, has built a career in environmental policy, serving as an advisor to Senator Jon Tester of Montana and chief of staff to former Montana Governor Steve Bullock, both Democrats and the head of Montana’s Environment Agency, where she earned a reputation as a Bridge builder among environmentalists, ranchers and fossil fuel stakeholders. She is currently Senior Conservation Policy Advisor for the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit conservation group.
But Republicans argue that her actions in 1989 and her account of that episode in the years in between make her unfit for the post. They wrote to President Biden asking him to withdraw their nomination and they plan to vote against them as a block on committee.
Republicans also fought against the election of Home Secretary Deb Haaland, the first indigenous cabinet secretary, for her opposition to expanded oil and gas drilling on public land. While Ms. Haaland only barely received the confirmation, this process turned into a proxy fight over climate policy.
Conservatives were more successful in March when they forced the Biden administration to withdraw their election for Deputy Home Secretary Elizabeth Klein after senators from the coal and oil states protested Ms. Klein’s belief that the nation must cut fossil fuel consumption.
“Oil and gas, coal, these industries are declining or facing serious declines,” said John Leshy, a law professor emeritus at the University of California Hastings.
He attributed this to market forces rather than government policies, but said the Home Office has become where the fiercest battles over the future of these industries are currently being fought.
“There is a lot of frustration associated with that,” said Mr. Leshy. “And we’re in a moment when those frustrations have come to the fore.”
Ms. Stone-Manning was never charged with a crime or participated in efforts three decades ago to drive 500 pound metal spikes into trees in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest, a federal crime for which two men were later convicted.
Tree topping is a tactic to try to prevent deforestation by inserting metal rods into trees that could damage the blade of a saw. It was used by activists in the 1980s who hoped to make cutting trees uneconomical, but the practice was dangerous; Spikes can injure or kill lumberjacks.
Ms. Stone-Manning, then a 23-year-old graduate student, typed a profanity-riddled letter to the United States Forest Service on behalf of one of the activists who studded the trees. Ms. Stone-Manning has described her act as an attempt to warn the authorities and protect people from harm.
Republicans have accused Ms. Stone-Manning of lying to lawmakers about whether she was ever the target of an investigation, an accusation the government has denied.
The 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats on the Senate Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources are expected to split evenly along the party lines. That would force New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, to dismiss the nomination, a rare move that would put it to the vote before the entire Senate. If the Senate also splits along party lines, the Democrats need Vice President Harris to break the bow.
The White House issued a statement this week in support of Ms. Stone-Manning.
“Tracy Stone-Manning is a dedicated civil servant with years of experience and a proven track record in finding solutions and common ground when it comes to our public lands and waters,” said Vedant Patel, a White House spokesman. “She is exceptionally qualified to be the next director of the Bureau of Land Management.”
Republicans say new testimony from people involved in the Spiking episode suggests Ms. Stone-Manning was more involved than she claimed.
“We now know that President Biden’s candidate to head the Bureau of Land Management lied to the Senate about their alleged involvement in ecoterrorism,” Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said in a statement. “The White House should withdraw your nomination immediately.”
Mr. Tester said the allegations against Ms. Stone-Manning were “an air of political slander”.
“The Tracy Stone-Manning I know is someone who has spent the last 20 years bringing together people from both sides of the aisle from all walks of life,” he said.
According to court documents, in the spring of 1989, when Ms. Stone-Manning was studying environmental science at the University of Montana, Missoula, Earth First! Activists including John Blount and Jeffrey Fairchild hammered nails into old trees in Idaho Forest to stop a timber sale.
Thereafter, Ms. Stone-Manning testified, Mr. Blount asked her to send a letter warning her to the Forestry Department what she did after she retyped it. She later told prosecutors that she first heard about the tree top and was “shocked” by it.
In 1993, Ms. Stone-Manning testified against Mr. Fairchild and Mr. Blount in exchange for immunity.
Last week, Michael W. Merkley, a retired U.S. Forest Service investigator responsible for the case, wrote to Senate lawmakers saying that Ms. Stone-Manning was not helpful when the government first investigated the tree spike crime and combative. He also said she had received a “target letter” indicting her in connection with her participation.
“MS. Stone-Manning didn’t come forward until after her attorney made the immunity agreement and not before she was caught,” said Mr. Merkley.
Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, cites this and a 1990 interview with Ms. Stone-Manning as evidence that she lied in response to written questions from the committee in which she lied asked if she had ever been there for a criminal investigation.
“She is an eco-terrorist,” Barrasso said in an interview, adding, “She lied to the committee, misled the committee about her conduct and investigations.”
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies, said Ms. Stone-Manning’s disapproval was based on her behavior in 1989, rather than her opposition to expanding fossil fuel drilling into public land. “It’s not that we get someone from the industry when we get rid of Tracy Stone-Manning,” said Ms. Sgamma. “This is about your judgment.”
Mr. Fairchild, who was in prison for his role in the tree top incident, was defending Stone-Manning when he was reached by phone.
“Since she was a key participant in this event and a key planner, as far as I can remember, she didn’t know about it beforehand,” Fairchild said, adding that Ms. Stone-Manning was known for resisting the violence.
“Tracy was always a moderating voice,” he said. “We talked about ending the deforestation of ancient forests and she was the first to say, ‘Yes, but loggers have families too.’
Mr. Tester said he wasn’t worried about the allegations either. “We have the votes to endorse it,” he said.