Tracy Stone-Manning was confirmed to lead the federal Bureau of Land Management on Thursday following a contentious confirmation process in which Republicans and conservative media labeled her an “eco-terrorist” and “violent extremist” for her connection to a tree-spiking incident in the late-1980s.
Stone-Manning, a senior adviser for conservation policy at the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation and a former aide to Montana Democrats, will become the first confirmed director since Neil Kornze led the bureau under President Barack Obama. She’ll be charged with overseeing 245 million acres of federal land ― more than 10% of the entire U.S. landmass ―and 700 million subsurface mineral acres.
The Senate confirmed Stone-Manning with a 50-45 vote, along party lines, with several Republicans absent.
Republicans vehemently opposed Stone-Manning’s nomination, accusing her of not only playing a key role in a radical environmental group’s plot to hammer metal spikes into trees in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest in 1989 to prevent them from being logged, but lying to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about her involvement.
As a graduate student at the University of Montana, Stone-Manning acted as a spokesperson for Earth First!, a group that had vandalized ski resorts and occupied forests to prevent timber from being harvested. In 1989, she retyped a letter that an organization member gave to her and sent it to the U.S. Forest Service. It warned that trees slated to be cut down had been spiked and contained threatening language, including “You bastards go in there anyway and a lot of people could get hurt.”
Tree-spiking is an act of sabotage meant to deter loggers from harvesting trees, and there have been incidents of forest and mill workers being severely injured when saw blades come in contact with the hidden spikes.
Stone-Manning has maintained for decades that she only sent the letter to prevent people from getting hurt and was never a target of the federal investigation. In the early 1990s, Stone-Manning testified against two people who ultimately went to prison for the crime.
But an investigator in the case and one of the convicted tree-spikers recently challenged her account. In a letter to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee after her confirmation hearing, retired U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Michael Merkley wrote that Stone-Manning was in fact a target of the investigation, “was not an innocent bystander” and came forward only after her attorney struck an immunity deal with prosecutors. John Blount, one of two men convicted in the case, told E&E News that Stone-Manning did not participate in planning the spiking but “knew about it far in advance.”
The other convicted tree-spiker, Jeff Fairchild, told The Washington Post that aside from mailing the letter, Stone-Manning “knew nothing and was not involved.” He described her as a “bridge builder” and “a moderating voice in every discussion.”
Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate energy committee, led the effort to sink her nomination.
“Ms. Stone-Manning helped plan the tree-spiking. She knew about it in advance. She sent the threatening letter to the Forest Service. She was investigated. She collaborated with eco-terrorists. She lied to the Senate,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor in July. “Lying to the United States Senate has consequences. In this case, her actions and her lies should cost her this nomination.”
Dozens of Republican lawmakers called on Biden to withdraw her nomination, and in the end, not one Republican supported her for the role. But the administration stood behind her, and Senate Democrats slammed their GOP colleagues for running a political smear campaign.
“They have dragged a good person’s name through the muck,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), whom Stone-Manning worked for for six years in Montana, said in a July floor speech. The Republican campaign against her, he added, was “particularly galling” considering many of those involved supported William Perry Pendley, an anti-public lands extremist who illegally led the bureau as its acting director under President Donald Trump. Pendley, a conservative lawyer, has a long record of arguing that public lands should not even exist and has ridiculed Native Americans over their religious beliefs.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) called Republican colleagues’ treatment of Stone-Manning “the worst example of character assassination” he’d witnessed during his time on the committee. He reminded them of their own actions following the January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“We know a lot more about domestic terrorism than any of us would like because we had a front-row seat to it on Jan. 6 of this year,” he said during a hearing. “And more than a few members of this committee refused to hold the instigator of that responsible, and yet they’re hellbent on dragging Ms. Stone-Manning’s name through the mud.”
Stone-Manning will take the helm of the bureau as the Biden administration works to finalize a major review of the federal oil and gas leasing program. The Interior Department, the parent agency of the BLM, paused new federal leases in January pending the outcome of that review, but a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the moratorium in June. Interior officials have said the oil and gas leasing program currently is “not serving the American public well.”
Stone-Manning has called the current system “broken” and advocated for major reforms to better protect public lands and wildlife.
“At the BLM, she will bring nonpartisan stewardship to our nation’s greatest treasures,” Tester said in July. “Tracy is dedicated to smart management of our public lands. She is dedicated to the habitat and to the outdoors.”