A view of the Dolores River in Colorado. (Bob Wick/BLM/Public domain 1.0)
The U.S. Senate voted along party lines Thursday night to make Tracy Stone-Manning the first confirmed director of the Bureau of Land Management since the Obama administration.
The vote, 50-45, ended a contentious confirmation process for Stone-Manning, a senior adviser for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation who served as chief of staff to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.
It also represented a victory for her biggest supporter, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat for whom Stone-Manning once worked as an aide. Senate Republicans fiercely opposed her nomination, most vocally because of her ties to a 1989 plot to drive spikes into hundreds of trees.
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Republicans maintained their resistance up until the last moments before the vote Thursday evening, with a parade of Western senators coming to the floor to register their opposition.
In a tense exchange, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming called her “completely unfit for the job.”
“Ms. Stone-Manning lied to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about her involvement as an eco-terrorist and in the eco-terrorism,” Barrasso said, adding that Senate Democrats would be “held personally responsible” for voting to confirm her.
Tester told Barrasso he accepted that challenge.
“You’re damn right. Hold me accountable for Tracy Stone-Manning,” he said. “I’ve worked with her. I know what she does. I know she can get the job done. She can bring people together.”
Tester also seemed to lay blame for the Republican campaign against Stone-Manning on his state’s other senator, Republican Steve Daines, saying it was retribution for Stone-Manning’s support of Bullock’s unsuccessful run for Daines’ Senate seat last year.
“I’m going to point out one thing that Tracy Stone-Manning did that was wrong: She actually agreed to be Gov. Bullock’s chief of staff,” Tester said.
“If somebody wants to go in and do an investigation and find out what’s happened over the last three years, with the governor running against a sitting senator in this body and she being the governor’s chief of staff, you will find out why people stand up and make stuff up about Tracy Stone-Manning.”
In a statement to to Newsline, Stone-Manning said, “I am grateful for the Senate’s vote of confidence today and look forward to bringing decades of experience — working on the ground and across the aisle — to carry out the critical mission of the Bureau of Land Management. Our public lands are one of America’s finest ideas, and I am ready to get to work alongside a remarkable team to ensure future generations benefit from them like we have.”
Rebuilding the BLM
Stone-Manning will be tasked with rebuilding an agency at the center of President Joe Biden’s climate and energy agenda. The BLM oversees nearly 250 million acres of public lands and manages the federal oil and gas leasing program.
Biden temporarily paused that program and ordered a review of federal policy when he took office. A federal judge this summer ordered the program be renewed. The Interior Department, of which the BLM is a part, has said it is working to restart leases.
Stone-Manning will oversee the agency’s move back to Washington from Grand Junction. The move reverses a controversial decision during former President Donald Trump’s administration to relocate the agency to the West, where nearly all BLM lands are.
Opponents said the decision hollowed out the agency influence in the nation’s capital and drove out experienced workers. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced this month the headquarters would be relocated back to Washington. A “Western headquarters” would remain in Grand Junction.
The agency has lacked a Senate-confirmed leader since Neil Kornze stepped down at the end of President Barack Obama’s term in January 2017. Under Trump, anti-public lands attorney William Perry Pendley ran day-to-day operations as the deputy director for policy and programs, but was never confirmed as the director.
The lack of a Senate-confirmed director led to uncertainty in the agency, including a Montana federal judge invalidating some decisions the BLM made during Pendley’s time in office.
Days after Stone-Manning’s confirmation hearing earlier this year at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Republicans were already skeptical of her political work and opposition to fossil fuel development, the conservative site Daily Caller published a report detailing Stone-Manning’s involvement with a 1989 tree-spiking plot while she was a graduate student at the University of Montana.
Though the episode was already public, it was not well known in Washington and the article intensified Republican opposition.
Court records and Stone-Manning’s own account show she mailed a letter in 1989 to the U.S. Forest Service threatening that loggers who attempted to cut down a portion of Clearwater National Forest could be hurt by spikes driven into them in an attempt to sabotage a sale — a federal crime.
She has said, including at her confirmation hearing for a state post in 2013, that the scheme’s organizers approached her and asked her to mail the letter. She said the ringleaders intimidated her and that she wished to warn loggers who may have been in harm’s way. She later testified against two men who were convicted for the tree-spiking.
Other accounts, including from a Forest Service investigator, said she was more involved in planning than she’d indicated. Republican senators also took issue with her response on a pre-hearing questionnaire that she had never been the target of a criminal investigation.
On the Senate floor on Thursday night, Idaho Republican Jim Risch accused Stone-Manning of perjury in a Senate floor speech and said she would have no credibility when she appears before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the BLM, as director.
But it was Tester who had the last word before the vote.
“Now, we’re going to take a good woman, a good woman who the state of Montana knows well, who, in fact, was vetted in the state of Montana and they said all these accusations have no merit,” he said. “And we’re going to run her through the ringer here. Character assassination like I’ve never seen before.”
The aggressive Republican campaign against Stone-Manning belied the reputation she’d built as a consensus builder on conservation issues. She won bipartisan backing from the Republican-led Montana Senate in a 2013 vote to become the state’s director of environmental quality.
Among the Republican state senators who voted for her in 2013 was Matt Rosendale, then the vice-chair of the state’s Joint Natural Resources and Transportation Committee and now the lone U.S. House member representing Montana.
Rosendale signed on to a July letter opposing Stone-Manning’s nomination to the BLM post. He tweeted Wednesday that the Senate should “‘spike’ her nomination” and on Thursday compared her to the Taliban.
Asked Thursday what changed his opinion on Stone-Manning, Rosendale said through an email from spokesman Harry Fones: “Given all of the criminal activity that Senator Daines exposed during the hearing, which she previously was able to suppress, Tracy Stone-Manning is not fit for this position.”
State senators were aware of the tree-spiking incident in 2013 and asked Stone-Manning about it during that confirmation process.
Fones added that “more information came out of her (2021) hearing process including how she filled out the questionnaire for the Senate which was called into question.”
Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper issued a statement in support of Stone-Manning: “Tracy Stone-Manning will be the partner Colorado and the West needs to make our new BLM Western Headquarters a success. Together we will protect our public lands.”
— Darrell Ehrlick contributed to this report.
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