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Biden’s public lands nominee, once linked to eco-saboteurs, advances with key Senate vote

Republicans say Tracy Stone-Manning’s past affiliation with eco-saboteurs makes her unqualified to run the Bureau of Land Management

Tracy Stone-Manning, the administration's nominee for Director of the Bureau of Land Management, arrives for a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Tracy Stone-Manning, President Biden’s pick to be the top public lands manager, moved one step closer to becoming director of the Bureau of Land Management on Thursday as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced her nomination solely with Democratic support.

For weeks, Republicans have adamantly called on Biden to withdraw Stone-Manning’s nomination due to her decision as a University of Montana graduate student to send a letter on behalf of eco-saboteurs in 1989. The group drove metal spikes into trees in Idaho set to be cut down — an act designed to make it more dangerous for loggers to saw through the trunks.

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“It is hard to imagine a nominee more disqualified than Tracy Stone-Manning,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the top Republican on the committee, at one point holding up a gray metal spike. He was among the 10 Republicans on the panel who voted against her nomination.

The hearing turned heated, veering into debate over unrelated topics such as the Jan. 6 insurrection and Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, as Democrats accused Republicans of character assassination against Stone-Manning.

“I think back home we’d call this a skunk fight,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said.

If confirmed, Stone-Manning will play a crucial role in realizing the president’s promise to curb climate-warming emissions and set aside nearly a third of the nation’s land for conservation. She would be tasked with fulfilling one of Biden’s most demanding campaign pledges — winding down new oil and gas drilling on federal acreage.

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Supporters laud Stone-Manning, currently a senior adviser at the National Wildlife Federation, as an experienced environmental policy hand able to strike compromises with activists and industry alike. But her opponents say her affiliation with the activist group Earth First in the 1980s is disqualifying.

Renting a typewriter from a university library to avoid using her personal computer, she retyped an anonymous warning to the U.S. Forest Service provided by a fellow member of Earth First, letting officials know the trees had been spiked.

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.

For years, Stone-Manning has maintained she had only a tangential role in the tree-spiking. She told the Senate she was never the “target” of the investigation. In testimony at the trial of two other Earth First members, she said she sent the letter only because she “didn’t want anybody getting hurt.”

The letter, however, carried a threatening tone. The forest, it read, “is home to the Elk, Deer, Mountain Lions, Birds, and especially the Trees … You bastards go in there anyway and a lot of people could get hurt.”

And an investigator in the tree-spiking case, Michael Merkley, recently told the energy committee that Stone-Manning was an initial target of the investigation and only talked after she was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony. “Ms. Stone-Manning was not an innocent bystander, nor was she a victim in this case,” Merkley wrote in a letter to the committee. “And, she most certainly was not a hero.”

But Daniel LaCrosse, one of the defendants in the tree-spiking criminal case who was acquitted, minimized Stone-Manning’s role. “Poor Tracy got sucked into something. I don’t think she knew what she was getting sucked into at the time,” he said in an interview. “She definitely didn’t do anything illegal or wrong. That’s just a bogus rap for her.”

Two others were convicted of damaging government property.

The Biden administration is still backing its nominee. Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for BLM’s parent agency, the Interior Department, said it “stands by Tracy’s statements and written submissions.”

Stone-Manning’s nomination moved forward after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D), the West Virginia moderate who chairs the energy panel, threw his weight behind the pick.

Speaking before the vote, Manchin said he took Republicans’ concerns about Stone-Manning “very seriously.” But the senator said the nominee would go to the BLM with a “solid reputation over the past three decades as a dedicated public servant and as a problem-solver,” noting she did not participate in the tree-spiking itself.

Until this week, it was an open question whether the coal- and gas-state Democrat would support Stone-Manning. Manchin had torpedoed Biden’s nominees before. In March, the White House was forced to pull its initial choice for the Interior Department’s No. 2 official, Elizabeth Klein, after Manchin objected to her past efforts to curb fossil fuels.

Instrumental in pulling together support among Democrats for her nomination was Stone-Manning’s old boss, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who spoke favorably of the nominee’s qualifications at a caucus meeting in June.

“Tracy will bring Montana common sense to the Bureau of Land Management and serve as a collaborative, nonpartisan steward for our public lands, as well as the thousands of good-paying jobs that rely on them,” Tester said in a statement.

Stone-Manning worked for Tester for six years, starting as field director in Missoula. He faces a potentially tough 2024 reelection race in Montana, a state overwhelmingly won by Trump, if he chooses to run. Already, the Montana Republican Party is labeling Stone-Manning an “environmental extremist.”

The tied, 10-10 committee vote means it is now up to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discharge the nomination for the full Senate to consider. In remarks Thursday, Schumer vowed to bring her nomination to a full Senate vote, calling Stone-Manning “someone who will repair the damage of the last four years.”

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With Democrats controlling the chamber by the narrowest of margins, Vice President Harris may have to cast a tiebreaking vote to put Stone-Manning in the job.

The vote comes at a crucial juncture for the BLM. The Biden administration is in the middle of a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas leasing program, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will visit the agency’s headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., this week.

The next BLM director will take over a depleted agency. Around 300 bureau employees quit or took other jobs after Trump’s interior secretary, David Bernhardt, moved the BLM’s headquarters to western Colorado. For four years under Trump, the agency operated without a Senate-confirmed leader.

Joshua Partlow contributed to this story.