WASHINGTON — Democrats are gearing up for Tracy Stone-Manning’s nomination to head the Bureau of Land Management, despite united opposition from Republicans who have labeled her an “eco-terrorist” for her involvement in a tree-filled episode as a college graduate in the 80s.
The vote on her nomination, scheduled for Thursday in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sparks a battle between Republicans and Democrats over an agency central to climate policy.
The Bureau of Land Management is an agency within the Department of the Interior 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 extraction with recreation and the protection of natural resources. It’s also key to President Biden’s goal to phase out oil and gas drilling on federal lands — a plan being challenged by 15 states led by Republican attorneys general.
“The concerns many people have about Stone-Manning’s nomination is that she will be more on the side of protecting public lands for public use, and the people who want public lands used for more development, don’t like that,” said Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resource law at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“These other issues are being used to block her confirmation,” he said. “I don’t think anyone really cares what she did 32 years ago.”
Ms. Stone-Manning, 55, has built a career in environmental policy, serving as aide to Montana Senator Jon Tester and chief of staff to former Montana Governor Steve Bullock, both Democrats, as well as the head of Montana’s environmental agency, where she earned a reputation as a bridge builder. among environmentalists, ranchers and fossil fuel advocates. She is currently the senior conservation policy advisor at the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit conservation organization.
But Republicans argue that her actions in 1989, and her account of that episode in the intervening years, make her unfit for the position. They wrote to President Biden asking to withdraw her nomination and they plan to vote against her as a bloc in the committee.
Republicans also fought the election of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet secretary, for her opposition to extensive oil and gas drilling on public lands. While Ms Haaland narrowly received confirmation, that process turned into a proxy fight over climate policy.
Conservatives had been more successful in forcing the Biden administration to revoke its choice of Deputy Home Secretary Elizabeth Klein in March after senators from coal and oil states objected to Mrs. Klein’s belief that the nation’s use of should curb fossil fuels.
“Oil and gas, coal, those industries are in decline or facing serious decline,” said John Leshy, a law professor emeritus at the University of California Hastings.
He attributed that more to market forces than government policy, but said the Interior Ministry has now become the place where the fiercest battle over the future of those industries is taking place.
“There’s a lot of frustration with that,” Mr Leshy said. “And we’re at a time when those frustrations have emerged.”
Ms. Stone-Manning has never been charged with a crime and three decades ago did not participate in the attempt to drive 500 pounds of metal spikes into trees in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest, federal crimes for which two men were later convicted.
Tree cutting is a tactic to prevent logging by inserting metal rods into trees that can damage a saw’s blade. It was used in the 1980s by activists who hoped to make felling trees uneconomical, but the practice was dangerous; spikes can injure or kill loggers.
Ms. Manning, then a 23-year-old college graduate, typed and mailed a profanity-laced letter to the United States Forest Service on behalf of one of the activists who nailed the trees. Ms Stone-Manning has described her action as an attempt to alert authorities and protect people from harm.
Republicans have accused Ms. Stone-Manning of lying to lawmakers about whether she had ever been the target of an investigation, an accusation the government has denied.
The 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee are expected to be evenly split along party lines. That would force Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, to fire the nomination, a rare move that would put it up for a full Senate vote. If the Senate also splits along party lines, Democrats will need Vice President Harris to break the tie.
The White House released a statement this week in support of Ms. Stone-Manning.
“Tracy Stone-Manning is a dedicated public servant with years of experience and a proven track record of finding solutions and common ground when it comes to our public lands and waters,” said Vedant Patel, a White House spokesperson. “She is exceptionally qualified to be the next director of the Bureau of Land Management.”
Republicans say new statements from figures involved in the peak period indicate that Ms. Stone-Manning was more involved than she claimed.
“We now know that President Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Land Management lied to the Senate about her alleged participation in ecoterrorism,” Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell said in a statement. “The White House must revoke her nomination immediately.”
Mr Tester said the allegations against Ms Stone-Manning “sex political defamation”.
“The Tracy Stone-Manning I know is someone who has spent the past 20 years bringing people together from both sides of the aisle from all parts of the industry,” he said.
According to court documents, Earth First! activists, including John Blount and Jeffrey Fairchild, reasoned in the spring of 1989, when Ms. Stone-Manning was an environmental studies graduate at the University of Montana in Missoula, nails into old trees in the Idaho forest in an attempt to stop a lumber sale.
Afterward, Ms Stone-Manning testified, Mr. Blount asked her to send a letter which he gave her to the Forest Service, which she did after retyping it. She later told prosecutors that this was the first time she had heard about cutting trees 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 US Forest Service detective who was the special agent responsible for the case, wrote to Senate lawmakers, saying that when the government initially investigated the tree-pecking crime, Ms. Stone-Manning was useless and combative. He also said she received a “target letter” stating that she would be charged in connection with her participation.
“Mrs. Stone-Manning only came forward after her lawyer made the immunity deal and not before she was caught,” Merkley said.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, cites that and a 1990 interview that Ms. Stone-Manning gave as evidence that she lied in response to written questions from the commission asking if she had ever been the target of a criminal investigation.
“She is an eco-terrorist,” Mr Barrasso said in an interview, adding, “She has lied to the commission, misled the commission in terms of her past behavior and investigations.”
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies, said the opposition to Ms. Stone-Manning is based on her behavior in 1989, not on its opposition to expanding fossil fuel drilling on public lands. “It’s not like we’re going to take anyone out of the industry if we get rid of Tracy Stone-Manning,” said Ms. Sgamma. “This is about her judgment.”
mr. Fairchild, who was serving time in prison for his role in the tree incident, defended Stone-Manning when he was reached by phone.
“Being one of the key participants in that event and one of the key planners, she didn’t know anything about it in advance as far as I can remember,” said Mr. Fairchild, adding that Ms. Manning was known for her opposition to violence.
“Tracy was always a moderating voice,” he said. “We talked about ending the logging of old-growth forests, and she was the first to say, ‘Yeah, but loggers have families too.'”
Mr Tester said he was not concerned about the allegations either. “We have the votes to get her confirmed,” he said.