Tracy Stone-Manning testifying before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Screenshot via Senate.gov
Republicans in the U.S. Senate are ramping up opposition to President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Bureau of Land Management after a right-wing news site and other news reports detailed her connection to an Idaho tree-spiking scheme three decades ago.
Without GOP support, Montana’s Tracy Stone-Manning would need the votes of every Democrat in the evenly divided Senate. While no Democrats have voiced opposition to her nomination, Energy Committee Chair Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has not yet disclosed how he plans to vote.
His committee, which would send the nomination to the Senate floor, on Friday released its schedule for the coming week. It did not include a confirmation vote on Stone-Manning.
Republican opposition ratcheted up following a June 11 report by the Daily Caller News Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the conservative news and opinion organization co-founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, as well as an Associated Press report.
The articles related Stone-Manning’s role in mailing a threatening warning letter as part of a tree-spiking incident. Tree-spiking, a form of sabotage in which a metal rod is hammered into a tree trunk, is a federal crime because it can injure tree workers as well as destroy equipment.
Stone-Manning, a University of Montana student at the time, admitted to mailing the letter in 1989 on behalf of extreme environmentalist activists who had tied spikes to trees in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest.
John P. Blount, a co-conspirator who was later convicted and served prison time for the incident, handed Stone-Manning an anonymous letter, which she then retyped and sent to the U.S. Forest Service, according to court records.
The profanity-laced letter warned the U.S. Forest Service that trees in the forest, parts of which were due to be sold to logging interests, had been spiked and could be dangerous to workers.
Stone-Manning later said she sent it because she feared for her own safety if she denied Blount’s request, and to protect forest workers who could have been harmed by the spiked trees.
She was questioned about the incident by Republican state lawmakers in 2013, when she was nominated to head the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “I’m sure everyone in this room regrets things they’ve done in their early 20s, but we all accumulate lessons,” Stone-Manning said at the time, according to an article in the Montana Standard.
Two Republicans in the U.S. Senate, Energy Committee ranking member John Barrasso of Wyoming as well as Jim Risch of Idaho, said they would oppose Stone-Manning’s nomination in the wake of the recent news reports.
Barrasso called the incident “disqualifying.” He accused Stone-Manning of misleading the committee in a written questionnaire in which she said she’d never been the target of an investigation, though she did say in the questionnaire she testified against a person in the tree-spiking case.
Prosecutors subpoenaed Stone-Manning as part of the investigation, and she received immunity to testify against the plan’s co-conspirators. She complained about the subpoena process at the time in a local newspaper.
“It’s clear that Ms. Stone-Manning was intentionally trying to deceive the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources,” Barrasso said. “She told the committee she had never been the subject of an investigation and yet complained about being investigated in the press. President Biden should withdraw her nomination.”
Risch said Stone-Manning “colluded with eco-terrorists.”
“We cannot ask Bureau of Land Management employees to serve under a director who aided those who endangered the land users they work on behalf of each day,” he said in a statement.
Barrasso appeared opposed to Stone-Manning even before calling for her withdrawal. He was aggressive in questioning Stone-Manning’s political history and opposition to an “energy-dominance” agenda at her confirmation hearing on June 8, three days before the Daily Caller and AP reports were published.
The Biden administration has stood by Stone-Manning, who would head up a federal agency that’s been without a confirmed director for years.
An administration official who was briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak publicly said Stone-Manning has always been upfront about the incident, which came up at other points in her career, including when she was nominated and confirmed to lead the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in 2013.
She “has never condoned any action that could lead to injury to anyone,” the administration official said.
“Thirty years ago, Tracy testified against someone who had attempted to cause harm by spiking trees,” the administration official said. “She had been approached by a man with a warning letter, which she sent to the U.S. Forest Service because she did not want anyone to get hurt. She has always been honest and transparent about this matter, which has been covered by the media for decades, and ultimately testified against the responsible individual, who was convicted.”
Senate Democrats, too, appear to remain on her side.
Sen. Jon Tester, (D-Mont.), a former boss of Stone-Manning’s, said he supports her and “I look forward to her confirmation.” A spokesman for Energy Committee member Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-Nev.), said she will vote yes on the confirmation.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, (D-Ariz.), a committee member and moderate up for reelection in a purple Western state next year, did not respond to messages seeking comment. A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, (D-Colo.), another committee member, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Stone-Manning’s supporters have been somewhat less vocal, perhaps as part of a strategy not to call attention to what they view as an irrelevant controversy.
However, at least one Democrat outside Congress who is well-known in public lands circles said learning of the 1989 incident changed his mind.
Bob Abbey, the first BLM director under President Barack Obama, said in a Thursday interview with States Newsroom that Stone-Manning’s involvement with tree spiking “should disqualify her” from leading the agency. The incident would hurt Stone-Manning’s standing within the agency, he said, with every tough decision she faced subject to added scrutiny.
“BLM needs a really strong leader,” he said. “To put someone in that position that has this type of resume will just bring needless controversy that is not good for the agency or for the public lands.”
A spokeswoman for Manchin, a key vote for Senate Democrats on multiple other issues this year, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Whitney Tawney, the executive director of the environmental group Montana Conservation Voters, called Stone-Manning “the best-qualified Montanan that we’ve ever had for such a position.” Stone-Manning served as treasurer of Montana Conservation Voters’ board until she was nominated for the BLM role.
The tree-spiking incident has been well-known in the state for years, and hadn’t hurt Stone-Manning’s record of working with Republican, Democrats, conservationists and industry members, Tawney said.
Efforts to bring the event up now amounted to “a smear campaign” that ignored Stone-Manning’s work in Montana over the last 30 years, she added.
“This is an unfair reflection of the work that she is doing now and the work that she has done in her professional career,” Tawney said. “She has been a mentor to conservationists across the board, regardless of party… She’s done so much more and they should be asking her what her vision is.”
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