Partisan fisticuffs over the Biden Administration’s nominee to lead the nation’s top lands agency are moving on to the full Senate, after the Energy and Natural Resources Committee deadlocked Thursday in its confirmation hearing for Tracy Stone-Manning to be director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Soon after the committee split 10-10 along partisan lines, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York praised the nominee on the Senate floor as “exceedingly qualified” and promised a full Senate vote soon on Stone-Manning’s nomination. As BLM director, she would be positioned to play a significant role in the Biden administration’s climate change policies, including conserving 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters and scaling back fossil fuel extraction on millions of acres of federal lands.
Schumer called out the bitter partisanship over Stone-Manning that’s only grown since the president selected her on Earth Day to fill a post that remained unfilled throughout the Trump administration.
“The members of the Republican minority on the committee are trying to turn this consensus-driven, well respected nominee into another partisan flash point, dredging up a letter she forwarded while in graduate school and claiming it was evidence that she is, quote, an ecoterrorist,” Schumer said on the floor, without specifying when the full Senate vote might actually take place. “The claim is just as hysterical as it sounds.”
Schumer was referring to an episode in which Stone-Manning, as a 23-year-old graduate student in 1989, wrote a letter that informed the U.S. Forest Service about a kind of eco-sabotage known as “tree-spiking,” which involves driving metal spikes into large trees, a tactic that has been used by radical environmentalists to stop timber harvests. A chain saw or sawmill blade cutting into spiked trees can maim or kill the operator and bystanders.
Stone-Manning admitted to typing and mailing the letter on behalf of one of two activists who were later convicted of federal crimes for the spiking. Stone-Manning, who was never charged with a crime, said she wrote the letter to warn authorities and keep people from being injured. Republicans have accused her of lying to lawmakers about her involvement in the incident and contend that it makes her unfit for the post.
The full Senate vote will require Schumer to rely on a little-used procedural tool called a “discharge petition” to first bring the nomination to the floor in a move that is expected to require Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote. Then, to confirm Stone-Manning, all Democrats must vote in her favor and the vice president would be needed to cast a second tie-breaking vote. Stone-Manning served in U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s office for 6 years, and the Montana Democrat told the New York Times his party has the votes they need to confirm her.
“I’ve seen firsthand Tracy’s dogged work to find collaborative solutions to some of our most challenging issues while bringing diverse viewpoints together to get things done,” Tester said in a statement on Thursday that urged a speedy vote. “She will bring Montana common sense to an agency that desperately needs it while serving as a nonpartisan steward for some of our nation’s greatest treasures.”
Democrats have supported Stone-Manning as a bridge-builder and environmental realist. Besides working for Tester, she led Montana’s state environmental agency for former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and served most recently as a senior advisor for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate on climate and energy policy, explained his vote as the leading Democrat on the Energy Committee by saying he and his staff had thoroughly reviewed the federal tree-spiking case and the other allegations against Stone-Manning. During Thursday’s hearing, he repeatedly disputed the Republican allegations against the nominee with factual details from that background research.
“I have been unable to find any credible evidence in the exhaustive trial record of the tree spiking case that shows that Ms. Stone Manning was an ‘eco-terrorist,’ that she spiked any trees, that she conspired with ‘eco-terrorists’ to spike trees, or that she lied to the committee,” he said, urging colleagues to support her nomination as he did.
“What I find, instead, is compelling evidence that she built a solid reputation over the past three decades as a dedicated public servant and as a problem solver who has brought people together,” Manchin added, pointing to support for the nomination from timber, energy, grazing organizations and GOP lawmakers.
Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and Stone-Manning’s chief committee critic, flatly rejected Manchin’s assessment. And, like other opponents, he suggested the Biden administration should be ashamed to stick by the nominee, especially because of her role in the tree-spiking case.
“It’s been described to me by someone who has worked in one of these mills—it’s like a hand grenade going off, damaging people all around the vicinity,” Barrasso said in a speech on the Senate floor following the committee vote.
Barrasso, the committee’s top Republican, restated his view that Stone-Manning “collaborated with eco-terrorists…lied to the Senate and continues to harbor extremist views that most Americans find reprehensible.” He also promised that “more information will come out” if the Biden administration continues to stand by the nominee.
Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican who narrowly won reelection last year in a contest with Bullock, Stone-Manning’s former boss, also spoke out against her. Although he did not mention Stone-Manning’s advocacy role in passage of the Great American Outdoors Act last year and the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2019, both considered key to his reelection, Daines said he and other Montanans simply had not known until recently about Stone-Manning’s true role in the tree-spiking and mistakenly regarded her as a hero who merely alerted authorities about the ecoterrorism.
“I would urge you not to turn a blind eye to her actions that placed wildland firefighters, federal employees, and loggers trying to put food on the table at risk, nor the utter lack of remorse we have seen for her involvement,” he said before the committee vote Thursday.
The Montana Conservation Voters called Daines’ vote “an embarrassment” and said he had “put politics above what’s right for Montana’s outdoor way of life.” Stone-Manning had been a volunteer member of the organization’s board of directors during the last election cycle but did not participate in political or spending decisions. The group sent a letter to Daines and Tester on Monday bearing more than 1,500 signatures in support of the nominee.
“Tracy Stone-Manning’s breadth of support from a wide range of individuals from small businesses to loggers to sportsmen shows that she’s got the experience, qualifications and balanced temperament we need for the Bureau of Land Management,” Whitney Tawney, the league’s executive director, said in a statement.
“For 30 years, Tracy has been recognized as one of the best in the West at bringing communities and industries together to manage our public lands and natural resources with an eye towards the future,” said Jennifer Rokala, who leads the Center for Western Priorities. “The senators who have launched a character assassination campaign against Tracy Stone-Manning are describing someone completely foreign to the person I, and so many people around the West, know.”
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For the Biden administration and its climate goals, the Bureau of Land Management is a critical agency. It oversees about one of every ten acres in the United States, spanning 245 million acres of land and 700 million acres of mineral rights, most of them in western states. The extraction and use of fossil fuels from BLM’s portfolio comprises a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions from public lands, which amount to roughly 24 percent of the nation’s contribution to the pollution blamed for climate change.
The BLM has been without a confirmed leader since the Obama administration. President Donald Trump’s nominee, William Perry Pendly, a conservative activist lawyer, was never confirmed by the Senate. He ran the agency nonetheless as its “acting” director and made dozens of decisions that were challenged in court.
The Montana Conservation Voters had joined the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups in cheering a decision last fall by a federal judge that invalidated Pendley’s long-term resource management plans for more than 800,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management wildlands in Montana and that state’s plans to protect the habitat of the sage grouse.
The lawsuit, which had been brought by Bullock, set the stage for trouble throughout the Trump administration, which had used a similar “acting” status across the executive branch, including nearly a dozen leadership roles at the U.S. Interior Department, the BLM’s parent agency.
Stone-Manning applauded the ruling, saying critics of the practice worried that the Department of Interior was “trying to sidestep the Constitution and the Senate by installing Mr. Pendley into the director’s chair without advice and consent of the Senate.”
“A judge called them on it,” she added. “And that now puts into question—if he was acting illegally as director—every single decision he made as director, and every decision that he had his thumb on the scale on as director is now in question. It’s a big mess.”