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Senate panel deadlocks on Biden’s controversial Bureau of Land Management pick, setting up contentious vote in full Senate

July 22, 2021 Updated Fri., July 23, 2021 at 10 a.m.

Stone-Manning  (Alex Brandon)
Stone-Manning (Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON – A Senate panel deadlocked in a party-line vote Thursday on President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management, setting up what could be the administration’s most contentious confirmation vote yet.

Since Biden tapped Tracy Stone-Manning to lead the agency responsible for managing logging, grazing and recreation on close to a quarter-billion acres of federally owned land, she has been the subject of intense scrutiny over what her role was in an effort to sabotage an Idaho timber sale more than three decades ago.

The tie vote between the 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee means Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will likely use a rare procedural move to advance her nomination to a vote of the full Senate, where a 50-50 tie in the evenly split chamber would force Vice President Kamala Harris to step in and cast the deciding vote.

The controversy around Stone-Manning, a longtime Montana conservationist and aide to Democratic politicians, stems from her role in a 1989 tree-spiking incident in the Clearwater National Forest when she was a graduate student at the University of Montana. While she has maintained her only role was editing, retyping and mailing a letter warning the Forest Service that other members of the environmentalist group Earth First! had driven metal spikes into trees to stop a timber sale, Republicans contend she lied to the committee about the extent of her involvement in the sabotage effort.

“Tracy Stone-Manning collaborated with ecoterrorists and lied to our committee,” Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the panel’s top GOP member, said. “Lying to the United States Senate has consequences. In this case, her actions and her lies should cost her this nomination.”

In the days leading up to the heated meeting Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, described as a “skunk fight,” two men – a retired Forest Service special agent who investigated the incident and one of the tree-spikers Stone-Manning’s testimony helped convict – came forward to allege she was aware of the group’s plan to sabotage the Post Office Creek sale before it took place.

While many Republicans would be likely to oppose any Democratic nominee to lead the BLM over policy differences, the confirmation battle over Stone-Manning has revolved almost entirely around the truthfulness of her testimony to the committee.

According to written responses she provided to the committee, Stone-Manning joined Earth First! after she moved to Missoula in 1988 to pursue a graduate degree in environmental science, living for “a couple of weeks” in a house with other members of the loose-knit group, including John Blount and Jeff Fairchild.

In 1989, Stone-Manning later told prosecutors, Blount handed her a letter warning that Earth First! members from Missoula had spiked the trees in Idaho and asked her to mail it to the Forest Service. She rented a typewriter, edited and retyped the letter, and mailed it.

“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 a probe led by Forest Service Special Agent Michael Merkley and centered around the University of Montana’s environmental studies program. Stone-Manning and other Earth First! members were subpoenaed for hair, fingerprint and handwriting samples, but Merkley’s investigation petered out by 1990.

Stone-Manning was only linked to the tree-spiking case in late 1992, when Blount’s former girlfriend told the FBI what she knew about the incident. Stone-Manning hired a lawyer and struck a deal to trade limited immunity for her testimony in a 1993 trial in Spokane that sent Blount and Fairchild to prison.

After Biden nominated her to lead the BLM, Stone-Manning filled out a questionnaire from the committee that asked if she had “ever been investigated, arrested, or charged” for any violation other than a minor traffic offense.

In response, she 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 a criminal investigation, “target” refers specifically to someone the government has substantial evidence against and is likely to indict. Republicans contend Stone-Manning’s response was dishonest or evasive because she was interviewed by Merkley as part of his initial investigation in 1989, while Democrats argue she answered truthfully that she was never an official target of prosecutors.

Stone-Manning has also denied having any knowledge of the tree spiking plan before it took place, but in an interview with E&E News last week, Blount said she had been involved in planning the sabotage and had agreed in advance to mail the letter.

Republicans pointed out that Stone-Manning’s description of Blount changed from her testimony in 1993 – when she described him as “in my main circle of friends” – to describing him in 2013 and again this year as a “disturbed” and “frightening” person.

Separately, Merkley sent a letter last week to Barrasso and Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the committee, claiming that Blount’s former girlfriend had also implicated Stone-Manning in the plot and that the nominee had been sent a target letter in 1993 before she struck a deal with prosecutors.

After Merkley came forward with those claims, the lead prosecutor in the 1993 trial, former Assistant U.S. Attorney George Breitsameter, told the Associated Press he had no memory of Stone-Manning being sent a target letter and that doing so would have been unusual.

Fairchild, the other man convicted for spiking the trees, told The Washington Post earlier this month Stone-Manning had not been involved until Blount asked her to mail the letter.

“She was a bridge builder. She was a moderating voice in every discussion,” Fairchild told the Post. “She was always the one to say, ‘Hey, look, loggers have families, too.’”

While most Republicans on the committee were careful to emphasize they were not accusing Stone-Manning of actually spiking the trees, GOP Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho went further, repeating accusations he had previously made in a public hearing and an interview with The Spokesman-Review.

Holding up a spike like the ones driven into the trees, Risch asked the committee, “Why do you put this in a tree? You put this in a tree to kill somebody.”

“Somewhere in the deep recesses of her heart and her soul is something so malignant and so bad that she would try to take another life,” Risch said of Stone-Manning. “That remains today, and if you don’t believe me, read the stuff that she’s written in the last couple of years.”

Risch didn’t elaborate, but his spokeswoman confirmed he was referring to a tweet she sent in September 2020 sharing an article her husband, Dick Manning, wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 2018 on the destruction wrought by wildfires in the woodland-urban interface, in which he argued, “Perhaps the solution to houses in the interface is to let them burn.”

Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, argued that Republicans were playing politics in an effort to derail a nominee they believe will work to balance conservation with the multiple-use mission of the BLM.

“Unfortunately, Ms. Stone-Manning isn’t here to defend herself,” Cantwell said. “What is really on trial here, I believe, is the future of America’s public lands. This vitriol against her is not about Ms. Stone-Manning in the sense of the substance I just read. It’s about where we’re going in the future.”

Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, told Cantwell he agreed that Stone-Manning should have a chance to defend herself and called for the committee to delay the vote until the nominee could appear again.

Several people who worked with Stone-Manning in Montana described her as a thoughtful policymaker adept at bringing together people with a wide range of views on public lands and environmental issues.

“The person that’s been portrayed by the opposing side is 180 degrees different than who she really is,” said Bill Lombardi, who worked with Stone-Manning in the office of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

“They are making a mountain out of a molehill and I think it’s political,” said Kathy Hadley, another longtime Montana conservationist who worked with Stone-Manning for two decades. “The job is so important in the West. Tracy is a hunter and an angler, she’s a backpacker. She’s worked on public land issues forever.”

Tom Livers, who served as deputy director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality when Stone-Manning led that agency and took over when she became chief of staff to former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said he saw her earn the trust of the state’s timber industry over the years, despite her environmentalist leanings.

Mike Oliver, who served as the Forest Service’s congressional liaison and worked with Stone-Manning when she worked for Tester, said he didn’t think her ties to Earth First! would cause any morale problems among BLM or Forest Service staff, who work closely together.

“I certainly did not see anything in my work with Tracy that would indicate that she had any kind of ax to grind with the federal government,” Oliver said. “I think that anybody that works with her is going to quickly see that she’s a person who listens well and has a lot of integrity.”

But Steve Ellis, who retired in 2016 after nearly four decades working for the Forest Service and the BLM, said he is concerned about the impact Stone-Manning’s confirmation could have on career employees of the two “sister agencies.”

“Much of the focus seems to be whether this is a Democrat or Republican thing, but the lens I look at this through is as a 38-year career person in both agencies, and that letter she wrote went to my Forest Service colleagues on the Clearwater,” said Ellis, who served as deputy director of the BLM until 2016.

“The administration’s got some great initiatives and their agenda for public lands is good, but you need the career employees to implement your agenda successfully across the West. Your leader has got to be respected by career employees and across the landscape, in both blue and red states.”

Stone-Manning’s nomination will advance to a vote of the full Senate once Schumer “discharges” it from the committee. That vote is not yet scheduled, and if all 50 Republicans oppose the nominee, all 48 Democratic senators – plus the two independents who caucus with them – would need to vote as a block along with Vice President Harris to confirm Stone-Manning.

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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