WASHINGTON – A bitterly divided Senate late Thursday approved President Joe Biden’s choice to oversee vast government-owned lands in the West, despite Republican complaints that she is an "eco-terrorist.''
Tracy Stone-Manning, Biden’s choice to lead the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, was approved, 50-45, on a party-line vote. Five Republican senators missed the vote.
Republicans sharply criticized her nomination during an often acrimonious Senate debate, with several holding up a metal spike similar to one used in a 1989 environmental sabotage case.
Democrats defended Stone-Manning, noting she was never charged with a crime and in fact testified against two men who were convicted of spiking trees to sabotage a timber sale in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called Stone-Manning a “dangerous choice to be put in charge of our public lands'' and said she ”continues to hold very dangerous views" against oil and gas drilling, logging and other commercial activity on federal lands. The land management agency oversees energy production, grazing, recreation and other activities on nearly a quarter-billion acres of public lands, primarily in the West.
Democrats called Barrasso's claims outrageous.
"The truth is, Tracy Stone-Manning did nothing wrong. And in fact the people who went to jail went to jail because of Tracy Stone-Manning,'' said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Stone-Manning was a senior Tester aide from 2007 to 2012.
Tester accused Barrasso and other Republicans of unfounded “character assassination” and said the real reason GOP lawmakers opposed her nomination was because she was a top aide to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who lost a closely contested race last year to Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
“If somebody wants to go into the investigation and find out what’s happened over the last three years, with the governor running against the senator in this body ... you will find out why folks stand up and make stuff up about Tracy Stone-Manning,'' Tester said in an impassioned defense of his former aide. "The facts don’t back up what they’re saying, and the character assassination is not something you should be proud of.''
Stone-Manning, 56, was Bullock's chief of staff for three years after working for Tester and now is a senior adviser at the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group.
Her advocacy for land preservation contrasts sharply with the land bureau’s priorities under former President Donald Trump, who sped up oil and gas drilling and sought to open new lands to development. But her nomination has been dogged by Republican accusations of wrongdoing in the foiled 1989 plot.
At the time, she was a 23-year-old environmental studies graduate student at the University of Montana. Two of Stone-Manning’s friends were later convicted of inserting metal spikes into trees, which makes them dangerous to cut and can be used to block logging.
She received immunity from prosecutors, testified against the two men and was never charged with any crime.
Stone-Manning acknowledged retyping and sending a letter on behalf of one of the convicted men warning authorities not to log in the sabotaged area. She didn’t come forward until the criminal case was prosecuted several years later, and has said she was fearful of one of the defendants.
Stone-Manning was an unofficial spokesperson for the activist group Earth First, which opposes logging, dam-building and other development and advocates civil disobedience. Activists have chained themselves to heavy machinery and camped in trees to block logging and other projects. The two men who were convicted in the planned sabotage were loosely affiliated with the group.
A former investigator for the U.S. Forest Service, Michael Merkley, has said that Stone-Manning was a target of the criminal investigation and helped plan the tree spiking. Others involved in the case, including the lead prosecutor, have disputed that characterization.
“We're not here to prosecute people. That's not our job,'' said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate energy panel. Stone-Manning's youthful ”compassion" for the environment "does not make her guilty,'' Manchin said, adding that he closely reviewed the 1993 trial and found no evidence that Stone-Manning was directly involved or committed a crime.
“This is a person that basically has given herself to public service,'' he said, praising Stone-Manning's knowledge of natural resource issues and ”unwavering dedication to the outdoors.''
The land-management bureau has been without a Senate-confirmed director since January 2017. Trump relied on acting directors who did not have to go before the Senate to advance his agenda to increase U.S. energy production from federal lands.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Sept. 17 that she is moving the agency's national headquarters back to Washington, reversing a Trump decision to move the agency to rural Colorado. The agency lost nearly 300 employees to retirement or resignation after its headquarters was moved to Grand Junction, Colo., in 2019.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., contributed to this story.