The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a student, Tracy Stone-Manning sent a letter on behalf of eco-saboteurs. It’s now complicating her chance to lead the Bureau of Land Management.

Republicans have called her an environmental extremist, but the Biden administration has stood by her nomination.

Tracy Stone-Manning, President Biden's nominee for director of the Bureau of Land Management, in Washington on June 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said Tracy Stone-Manning was Sen. Jon Tester’s chief of staff. She was his field representative in Missoula, Mont. The article has been corrected.

One spring day in 1989, Tracy Stone rented a typewriter from the University of Montana library and began to retype a letter.

The typewriter was to avoid using her personal computer. The letter was an anonymous warning to the U.S. Forest Service that someone had hammered hundreds of metal spikes into trees in an Idaho forest that was slated to be cut down for timber.

An acquaintance in her circle of young environmentalists had asked her to send it. After fixing a few spelling mistakes and removing some profanity, Stone dropped it in the mail.

It was a decision that has followed her, now Tracy Stone-Manning, for more than 30 years, through her rise in Montana politics to become one of the country’s prominent environmentalists and public lands experts and now President Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management. The letter led to law enforcement raids on student houses and a grand jury investigation. Her testimony in the subsequent trial would help send two people to federal prison.

Now that Stone-Manning’s nomination is in the Senate, Republican opponents have seized on this incident and other issues to cast her as an environmental extremist who should be withdrawn as the nominee.

“Tracy Stone-Manning collaborated with eco-terrorists,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A BLM director during the Obama administration, Bob Abbey, also said he opposed her confirmation because of her involvement in the tree-spiking incident and “the fact her initial silence put people at risk.”

Yet former classmates and activists, as well as two former defendants in the criminal case, describe her as a cooling voice among passionate activists, someone who did not want destructive tactics to distract from the message of environmental protection.

“Other than the mailing of the letter, Tracy knew nothing and was not involved,” Jeff Fairchild, who spent two months in federal prison for the tree spiking, said in a phone interview from Tennessee, where he works for Amazon. “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.’ ”

The job of BLM director is about judgment and balance. The 245 million acres out west under the agency’s control are under competing demands from ranchers, hikers, hunters and miners, as well as the wildlife on those lands.

Striking that balance is a tall order, given the president’s priorities. If confirmed by the Senate, Stone-Manning will be tasked with winding down oil and gas drilling on federal acreage and helping set aside nearly a third of the nation’s land for conservation. Those efforts to tackle climate change and protect habitat face intense opposition from Republicans, who say Biden’s environmental agenda will kill jobs.

Stone-Manning, who did not reply to requests for comment for this article, would arrive at the agency after a period of tumult. The BLM did not have a Senate-confirmed leader through Donald Trump’s entire term. Its acting head under Trump, William Perry Pendley, once advocated that the federal government sell all the agency’s land holdings. Around 300 bureau employees quit or took other jobs after the Trump administration moved the BLM’s headquarters to western Colorado.

In the years since sending the letter, Stone-Manning has built a reputation for wrangling granola-munching green activists and ruby-red Republicans onto the same side of contentious public land issues, sometimes seeking compromise with industry, to the dismay of more liberal environmentalists.

The former student activist became an avid sportswoman who hunts birds with her springer spaniels and regularly fills her freezer with elk meat, according to friends. She is the daughter of Republicans, she said at her confirmation hearing last month, including a father who was a commander in the U.S. Navy.

“I would not be here today, introducing her, if I thought she was the person that you described,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told Barrasso during the hearing. “This is a good person that has a good heart, that understands the value of our public lands.”

Missoula in the late 1980s was a hub of environmental activism partly because of the voracious pace of clear-cut logging pushed by the Forest Service. More timber was harvested in those years on Forest Service land than at any other time in history.

Stone’s future husband, Richard Manning, a former journalist at the Missoulian newspaper, covered the conflict between environmentalists and loggers in those days.

“We called the late 1980s the period of the timber wars, because sometimes it felt just that way,” Manning wrote in his 2013 memoir, “It Runs in the Family.” “They were characterized by a long series of pitched battles between environmentalists and loggers that played out in packed auditoriums of public hearings, street theater, demonstrations, protests, actions, tree spikings, and long convoys of logging trucks painted with slogans and honking air horns.”

The atmosphere was so tense at the 1993 trial in the conservative city of Spokane, Wash., where Stone-Manning testified, that defendants were given bulletproof vests to get to the courthouse.

Stone-Manning has long offered a simple defense for her decision to mail the anonymous letter on the sabotage in the Clearwater National Forest about two hours from campus.

“Because I wanted people to know those trees were spiked,” she testified in the trial. “I didn’t want anybody getting hurt as a result of trees being spiked.”

The four-paragraph letter she mailed put it more bluntly. Signed “George Hayduke” — the fictional hero of Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” about a group plotting to blow up a dam — it said that 500 pounds of eight- to 10-inch spikes had been pounded into the trees because “this piece of land is very special to the earth. It is home to the Elk, Deer, Mountain Lions, Birds, and especially the Trees.”

The postscript warned: “You bastards go in there anyway and a lot of people could get hurt.”

‘No compromise in defense of Mother Earth’

Jake Kreilick met Stone-Manning in Washington in 1988, before she moved to Missoula, when they were both interns at the National Wildlife Federation. A child of the Beltway who grew up in Silver Spring, Stone-Manning had majored in radio, television and film as an undergrad at the University of Maryland. But she was passionate about environmental issues, Kreilick recalled, and once she enrolled in the University of Montana’s environmental studies graduate program, she became active alongside him in a local branch of Earth First.

The group had a reputation for extreme front-line environmental activism in opposition to logging, dam-building and other development that threatened wilderness habitat. Tactics included civil disobedience and vandalism. Activists chained themselves to heavy machinery, lay down before bulldozers and cut power lines. Their slogan: “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.”

Kreilick’s Earth First debut occurred in the winter of 1985 when he and others barged into the office of Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent, Bob Barbee, carrying buffalo dung and a “Don’t tread on me” flag to protest the expansion of a campground and RV park into grizzly bear habitat. He would get arrested several times, including for a tree sit-in protest in the Flathead National Forest in Montana and for chaining himself to logging equipment in Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia

“[Stone-Manning] was a spokesperson and someone who was obviously very articulate and knew how to work with media,” recalled Kreilick, who now owns a tea shop in Missoula. “Certainly she was philosophically aligned with what our goals were, which was to protect the last wilderness areas in the Northern Rockies.”

Stone-Manning described in testimony that she had no formal or financial role in Earth First but participated in meetings and activities. On one occasion, she joined a street theater performance outside the Federal Building in Missoula in 1989, where activists appeared in costumes as “Eco Rangers,” asking people to take oaths to protect the Earth. In local news coverage back then, she was sometimes referred to as an Earth First spokesperson.

Another person who sometimes showed up to those events was John P. Blount, known around town as “Spicer.” He was not a student at the school and he had no job, but he hung around the environmental crowd. Friends from that time recalled him showing up in camouflage to protests and calling himself “tree fart.”

In April 1989, Blount, Fairchild and others drove to a swath of forest known as the Post Office Creek Sale and hammered metal spikes into dozens of Douglas fir, cedar and ponderosa pine trees. It was an illegal tactic intended to deter logging because the spikes can mangle chain saws and maim loggers.

Blount could not be reached for comment.

Such destructive forms of activism were a peripheral and divisive strain of the broader environmental movement at the time. Apart from the legal risks, many considered such actions to be strategic mistakes that would turn public opinion against activists and distract from the message.

“The environmental movement, just like any movement, has its shades of intensity,” said Timothy Bechtold, a classmate of Stone-Manning and former Earth First spokesman. “There were people who were like, ‘Let’s dress up in commando suits and start a war’ to the peace-and-love crowd.”

Bechtold, now a lawyer in Missoula who has worked on prominent environmental cases, including the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, said Blount and the others involved in the tree spiking “were fringe at best” and not associated with Earth First.

“They were just a couple of hangers on,” he said. “I think most of the reason why I knew who they were was because they would hang around at social gatherings.”

At one such gathering, a three-day party at the Boulder Hot Springs, where Blount was a cook, Stone-Manning argued against destructive forms of activism, according to Dan LaCrosse, one of Blount’s friends who attended.

“She strongly disagreed with doing any stupid stuff like that,” LaCrosse recalled. “She was like, ‘Never. Don’t involve me.’ ”

“She was the voice of reason on all that,” he said.

When the Forest Service received the letter, postmarked Missoula, warning about the tree spiking in Idaho, it launched an investigation into the University of Montana’s environmental studies program that was widely covered in the local media at the time. An editorial in the Missoulian shortly after the incident declared: “Tree spiking is nothing but a form of terrorism, and the ruthless cowards who do it are nothing but terrorists.”

“It definitely rocked the program. There’s no doubt about it,” Kreilick recalled. “It sent some shock waves not just through the program, but I would say through the university.”

Many in the small environmental studies department, which had a few dozen students at the time, felt harassed and intimidated by federal agents. Forest Service and FBI investigators raided student houses and confiscated diaries, calendars and notebooks; they took shoes to match footprints. Stone-Manning, Bechtold and others were subpoenaed and summoned to Boise, where investigators took locks of hair, fingerprints and handwriting samples.

“It was degrading,” Stone-Manning said of the investigation in an August 1990 article in the Great Falls Tribune. “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.”

Working across the aisle

After graduate school, Stone-Manning moved up the rungs of both Montana politics and nonprofit work by building unlikely alliances in the name of conservation.

Two decades ago, she backed a plan to remove a dam near Missoula that harbored toxic mining deposits dating back to the 1860s. The local conservation group she led, the Clark Fork Coalition, even ran a cattle ranch within the sprawling Superfund site to show how the area could be remediated.

“I felt that we could do a whole lot worse,” said Sherm Anderson, a self-described “staunch Republican” who runs one of Montana’s biggest sawmills and who worked with Stone-Manning on a logging and wilderness protection bill.

As Tester’s Missoula field representative, she helped create the 2011 legislation that took gray wolves off the endangered species list, angering some environmentalists.

Later, as director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality under Gov. Steve Bullock (D), she helped get red and blue states on board with recommendations to the Obama administration on pollution rules for power plants.

“The reason I wanted her for the federation is that I saw in her, when we were doing state-level work, the ability to work across regions and across differences in a way that was incredibly rare at that time,” said Collin O’Mara, the head of the National Wildlife Federation who hired Stone-Manning in 2017 when his and other green groups were facing both a White House and Congress under GOP control.

Most recently, at the National Wildlife Federation, Stone-Manning helped build support across Western states to “depoliticize,” according to O’Mara, the Great American Outdoors Act, one of the most consequential pieces of environmental legislation in decades.

Politicians across the political spectrum praised the passage last year of the bill, which is set to pump billions of dollars into the restoration of the country’s century-old national parks system and other public lands.

None of that, however, has saved her from the perils of partisan politics. During her confirmation hearing, Republicans grilled Stone-Manning over serving on the board of directors of Montana Conservation Voters, which backed her old boss, Bullock, in his unsuccessful effort to oust Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

“Can you speak from your heart?” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said during her hearing. “Because it seems like your heart is that you really don’t particularly care for Republicans.”

“I think that my career has shown that the only way to get things done in the country, and specifically in the West, is to work together,” she replied.

Barrasso said Stone-Manning lied to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during her hearing by describing the tree spiking as “alleged” and saying she had never been investigated.

“She did not cooperate with investigators until she was caught,” he said in a statement.

Later, while working on Tester’s Senate staff, Stone-Manning took a personal loan of more than $50,000 in 2008 during the financial crisis from a Montana real estate developer that Republicans say came at a below-market interest rate.

She now faces a narrow path to confirmation. Several GOP senators, including moderate Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), have come out against her nomination. With Senate Democrats holding a paper-thin margin, Stone-Manning will probably need every single one of their votes to win approval.

Amid the backlash, Biden is sticking with the nomination. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland “stands with Tracy Stone-Manning and all of our nominees,” department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said in a statement. “She believes that Tracy would be an important addition to our team.”

The White House called her “a dedicated public servant” who is “exceptionally qualified” for the job.

Lessons learned

The tree-spiking case went cold for a couple of years until one of Blount’s ex-girlfriends came forward accusing him and his friends. Several people were arrested and charged. LaCrosse recalled how U.S. marshals burst into his office while he was home in New Hampshire working for his father’s business.

“They actually charged me with financing the operation. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? I work at a bakery for $6.50 an hour,’ ” he said. His charges were eventually thrown out.

During the trial, Stone-Manning gave her testimony, in exchange for immunity, about her role in mailing the letter.

Blount and Fairchild were convicted of damaging government property and tree spiking. Blount, as ringleader, was sentenced to 17 months in prison.

“I’m sorry I did it,” he told the judge at the sentencing. “I really regret it. I’ve lost everything over this.”

Two decades later, Stone-Manning was questioned about the incident during the confirmation process to lead Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality.

“I’m sure everyone in this room regrets things they’ve done in their early 20s, but we all accumulate lessons,” she said at the time.

“In the end, it didn’t really change her trajectory,” Kreilick said. “That’s why she’s where she’s at. Underneath all that her heart is still really, really strong. But I’m sure it scared her.”

“It’s sobering when the feds come after you,” he said, “and they were pretty serious about it for a while.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.