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Biden’s pick to lead Bureau of Land Management under fire from Republicans over ties to 1989 tree spiking in Idaho

July 19, 2021 Updated Tue., July 20, 2021 at 8:42 a.m.

WASHINGTON – A Montana conservationist tapped by President Joe Biden to lead the Bureau of Land Management has come under fire from Republicans in recent weeks for her role in an environmentalist group that tried to sabotage an Idaho timber sale more than three decades ago.

As a graduate student at the University of Montana in 1989, Tracy Stone-Manning was part of the loosely organized environmental group Earth First! when some of its members drove from Missoula to the Clearwater National Forest and drove metal spikes into trees in an attempt to stop the Post Office Creek timber sale. Afterward, Stone-Manning later told prosecutors, she sent an anonymous letter warning the Forest Service about the spikes.

The Maryland native, who has lived in Montana since moving there in 1988 to pursue a degree in environmental studies, has maintained that her only involvement in the tree-spiking incident was editing, retyping and mailing that letter – removing some, though not all, of the profanity – out of a desire to make sure no one was hurt. In 1993, she testified in a Spokane courtroom against two men who were eventually convicted of felony charges for spiking the trees, which can injure workers when a saw hits a spike.

That history has been no secret as Stone-Manning has gone on to lead Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality and work on public lands issues at the National Wildlife Federation, experience that led Biden to pick her to head the federal agency that oversees logging, mining, grazing and other activities on roughly 247 million acres of public land, most of it in the West.

But GOP opposition to her nomination, focused mainly on her connection to the tree-spiking case, escalated last week after a former U.S. Forest Service special agent who investigated the tree spiking came forward to claim Stone-Manning was not only involved in planning the sabotage but was also a direct target of the federal investigation, contradicting sworn testimony she gave to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June.

In a letter sent to the committee’s top Democrat and Republican on Wednesday and obtained by The Spokesman-Review, retired Special Agent Michael Merkley alleged Stone-Manning was “the nastiest of the suspects” and “an active member of the original group that planned the spiking” in the Clearwater National Forest.

Merkley also claimed in his letter that a grand jury in Spokane sent Stone-Manning a “target letter” indicating she would be indicted on criminal charges, but the lead prosecutor on the case, former Assistant U.S. Attorney George Breitsameter, told the Associated Press on Thursday he did not recall such a letter ever being sent to Stone-Manning.

“If she was (sent a target letter), it would surprise me,” Breitsameter told the AP, emphasizing that being investigated by a law enforcement officer such as Merkley is different from being a target of prosecutors.

Separately, John Blount, the ringleader of the operation and one of the men convicted in the Spokane trial, told E&E News on Thursday that Stone-Manning knew about the operation and had agreed to mail the letter “far in advance,” but insisted she was not involved in planning or carrying out the tree spiking.

Stone-Manning has told the Senate committee she was never knowingly a target of the investigation and only found out about the tree spiking after it happened, when Blount handed her the letter and asked her to mail it.

Merkley and Blount have not provided evidence for their claims, which partly contradict each other. But GOP senators have cited the two men’s statements to argue Stone-Manning lied to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which must approve her nomination before she can be confirmed by a vote of the full Senate.

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, led all of the panel’s GOP members Wednesday in a letter asking Biden to withdraw her nomination.

“Not only did Tracy Stone-Manning collaborate with eco-terrorists, she also helped plan the tree spiking in Clearwater National Forest,” Barrasso said in a statement. “She has been covering up these actions for decades, including on her sworn affidavit to the committee.”

The Biden administration has stood by the president’s pick. On Friday, a White House official wrote in an email, “Tracy Stone-Manning is a dedicated public servant who has years of experience and a proven track record of finding solutions and common ground when it comes to our public lands and waters. She is exceptionally qualified to be the next Director of the Bureau of Land Management.”

Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican who also serves on the committee, went further than Barrasso. In an interview with The Spokesman-Review on Thursday, Risch said he believed Stone-Manning is guilty of “attempted murder” for her role in the tree-spiking incident.

“Some of my Democrat friends said she made a mistake. This was not a mistake,” Risch said. “This was knowingly, willfully, intentionally, with malice aforethought, with a black and abandoned heart, attempting to murder people in the mills.”

Stone-Manning was never charged with a crime, and Merkley has not claimed she took part in the sabotage operation personally. But Risch, who moved from Wisconsin to Idaho in the 1960s to earn a degree in forestry and got his start in politics as Ada County prosecuting attorney, said her role – according to Merkley’s account – makes her culpable.

“She actually executed the communication between the group and the Forest Service,” Risch said. “That is part of the conspiracy. As a prosecutor, I’d have no trouble standing in front of the jury, holding up a chain and saying, ‘You see this link? That’s her.’”

Roy Loewenstein, a spokesman for Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat whom Stone-Manning worked for between 2007 and 2012, said in an email Risch’s “defamatory statement is demonstrably false and has no basis in fact whatsoever.”

After working as a regional director for Tester in Montana, Stone-Manning went on to serve as director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and as chief of staff to former Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., before starting her current role at the National Wildlife Federation in 2017.

Tester, who doesn’t sit on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee but introduced Stone-Manning to the panel during her confirmation hearing June 8, objected after Barrasso described her as an ideologue opposed to natural resource extraction on public lands.

“I would not be here today introducing her if I thought she was the person that you described,” Tester said to Barrasso. “This is a good person that has a good heart, that understands the value of our public lands.”

Steven Beda, a University of Oregon historian who studies the Northwest timber industry and rural protest movements like Earth First!, said Risch’s remarks reflect the way timber workers talked about tree spiking when the practice was at its peak.

“When you go back to the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of the things timber industry folks said was that exactly,” Beda said. “They didn’t just call spiking terrorism. They called it attempted murder.”

There has been no documented instance of a worker being killed by a tree spike, but one came terrifyingly close. In 1987, a 23-year-old worker in a Northern California mill was nearly decapitated when the saw he was operating hit a metal spike and shattered, sending part of the blade flying through his safety helmet, slashing his face and cutting his jaw in two.

Congress responded by making tree spiking a federal felony a year later.

While the mill worker survived, Beda said the incident sent shock waves through the timber workers at a time when the industry was already squeezed by new regulations and other economic changes. At the same time, radical movements like Earth First! believed more pragmatic environmentalist groups were compromising and acting too slowly in the face of a looming ecological catastrophe.

“The mainstream environmental activists were pushing for these regulations, but then you get the radical environmentalists using very disparaging language about timber workers, often dehumanizing language, and that really adds a lot of fuel to the fire,” Beda said.

“Then spiking and other forms of Earth First! ‘monkey-wrenching’ come along, and that just makes a lot of people from rural, timber-working communities feel that people in the environmental movement care more about the spotted owl than they do what’s going on in rural communities,” he said, referring to the bird whose classification as a threatened species in 1990 restricted logging in Northwest forests.

Stone-Manning has maintained she never supported tree spiking as a tactic, and Jeff Fairchild, the other man convicted in the 1993 trial in Spokane, told The Washington Post earlier this month she was part of the Earth First! faction that opposed the practice.

“Other than the mailing of the letter, Tracy knew nothing and was not involved,” Fairchild told the Post. “She was a bridge builder. She was a moderating voice in every discussion. … She was always the one to say, ‘Hey, look, loggers have families, too.’”

Beda said the loose-knit nature of Earth First!, whose members saw themselves not as an organized group but as a “movement” with different ideas about tactics, makes it hard to ascribe responsibility to Stone-Manning, who told the committee in written responses to questions from Barrasso she met Blount and Fairchild when she stayed in a house “for a couple of weeks” in August 1988 while looking for an apartment.

“Her story of how she came to Missoula and got involved with these people, that is a common story among Earth First! activists,” Beda said. “People kind of fall into this orbit, so the extent to which they’re culpable for the actions of others within that movement gets really, really tricky and complicated.”

Asked whether every member of a similarly loose-knit conservative group should be held responsible for the actions of its most radical members – such as the Wenatchee man who firebombed a Missoula abortion clinic in 1993 and later claimed ties to GOP state lawmakers through an antiabortion group – Risch said they should be held to the same standard.

“That would depend on the group – every case would be different – but your point is well taken,” Risch said. “I don’t believe in a double standard. I’m as strongly pro-life as anybody, but you don’t kill people, or injure people, or do terrorism.”

Republicans would be likely to oppose any Biden nominee to lead the BLM because of the contentious policy issues its director handles. While not one of the most prestigious federal posts within the D.C. beltway, the bureau wields substantial power in Idaho, where the federal government owns more than 61% of land, and other similar states.

The agency’s last leader under former President Donald Trump, William Perry Pendley, drew ire from conservation advocates for pushing to sell federal land. Pendley proved too controversial to confirm and continued serving in an acting role, despite a federal judge ruling he couldn’t after Bullock, then Montana’s governor and Stone-Manning’s former boss, sued the Trump administration.

But Risch said he believes Biden could choose a consensus candidate for BLM director Republicans and Democrats alike could get behind, citing his vote to confirm Tommy Beaudreau, Biden’s pick for deputy secretary of the Interior, in June.

Democrats, who hold a slim majority in the Senate and each of its committees, don’t need any GOP votes to confirm Stone-Manning, so Republicans’ objections over policy won’t be enough to derail her nomination. The only Biden nominee to be withdrawn so far, Neera Tanden, withdrew herself from consideration to head the Office of Management and Budget in March amid controversy over past tweets criticizing Republicans.

The fate of Stone-Manning’s nomination likely rests with the question of whether she lied to Congress, a federal crime, but Republicans’ case for perjury so far depends on the word of Merkley, the retired investigator.

In her testimony to the committee, Stone-Manning said she found out about the tree spiking only after Blount asked her to mail the letter. In written responses to Barrasso, she recalled she was “disturbed by the whole situation and frightened by” Blount, but rented a typewriter to retype the letter he gave her because, she said, “I was concerned that if I did not mail the letter, he would not, and I wanted to make sure that someone was made aware of it so that no one would get hurt.”

“This letter is being sent to notify you that the Post Office Sale in Idaho has been spiked heavily,” the letter began, claiming 11 people had spent nine days driving 500 pounds of spikes into the trees. In a postscript, it warned, “You bastards go in there anyway and a lot of people could get hurt.”

The letter, postmarked in Missoula, set off an investigation that centered around the University of Montana’s environmental studies program. The school’s student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin, reported in October 1989 that Stone-Manning was one of six people subpoenaed to provide fingerprints and hair samples to the FBI as part of the probe.

“It was degrading,” she told the New York Times in August 1990 of the investigation. “It changed my awareness of the power of government. Yes, this was happening to me and not someone in Panama. And, yes, the government does do bad things sometimes.”

Investigators didn’t identify Stone-Manning as the letter’s sender until late 1992 or early 1993, when Blount’s former girlfriend Guenevere Lilburn told the FBI what she knew about the tree-spiking case. Stone-Manning retained an attorney and negotiated a deal to trade immunity for her testimony in the case.

The question of Stone-Manning’s honesty with the senators centers around her written response to a question – part of a standard questionnaire for positions requiring Senate confirmation – that asks, “Have you ever been investigated, arrested, or charged by any federal, state, or local law enforcement authority for the violation of any federal, state, or local law, regulation, or ordinance, other than a minor traffic offense?”

In response, Stone-Manning wrote, “No, I have never been arrested or charged and to my knowledge I have never been the target of such an investigation,” before going on to describe testifying in the 1993 trial in Spokane.

In a federal investigation, “target” refers specifically to someone the government believes there is substantial evidence against and is likely to indict. Meanwhile, a “subject” is someone whose conduct the government considers within the scope of the investigation, below the level of a “target.”

Because the questionnaire asked not whether Stone-Manning was a target but whether she was investigated at all, Republicans contend her response was dishonest. According to Merkley’s own testimony during the 1993 trial, however, she was not a subject or target of his initial investigation.

In a transcript of the trial proceedings, Breitsameter, the lead prosecutor, asked Merkley, “Prior to Guenevere Lilburn coming forward … did your investigation identify possibly anyone as a subject in this matter?”

“No,” Merkley responded, “basically the investigation became inactive after I exhausted all of the leads that was developed.”

A former Forest Service ranger who worked with Merkley in the 1980s – and later worked with Stone-Manning – said Merkley even interviewed him about the tree-spiking incident in a 1989 meeting that left him feeling like he was being treated as a suspect, despite the informal setting of their conversation.

Bruce Farling, who by that time no longer worked with Merkley and was studying journalism at the University of Montana, said Merkley cast a wide net in his investigation and may have blurred the lines between targets and simply people he questioned about the incident.

“They treated it like it was the Kennedy assassination,” Farling said in a phone call from Missoula, where he retired in 2017 after 23 years as the executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “Missoula was just totally abuzz about this at the time.”

Democrats have so far been relatively muted in their support of Stone-Manning, who is effectively barred from publicly defending herself while her nomination is pending. While the Biden administration continues to back her, Bob Abbey, who served as BLM director during President Barack Obama’s first term in office, told States Newsroom in June he thought Stone-Manning’s association with Earth First! should disqualify her from running the bureau because it would “just bring needless controversy that is not good for the agency or for the public lands.”

Her fate lies with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Joe Manchin, who has yet to schedule a vote on Stone-Manning’s nomination. The West Virginia Democrat’s office did not respond when asked Friday if he continues to support her confirmation.

If brought up for a vote, other Northwest Democrats on the committee, including Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon, would need to back Stone-Manning to advance her nomination to a vote of the full Senate, where all 48 Democrats and the two independent senators who caucus with them would need to vote to confirm her to lead the BLM.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described Michael Merkley’s 1993 testimony as contradicting the claim in his July 14, 2021 letter that Tracy Stone-Manning was sent a “target letter” by prosecutors. In fact, Merkley testified in 1993 only that his initial investigation in 1989 had not identified any subjects.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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