A former federal agent has challenged the account of President Biden’s pick to head the Bureau of Land Management over her role in a controversial 1989 tree-spiking plot, saying that she knew she was under investigation and refused to cooperate until she was threatened with an indictment.
Michael W. Merkley, a retired USDA Forest Service special agent, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Tracy Stone-Manning, in line to head the key environmental agency, was “vulgar, antagonistic and extremely anti-government” at the time of the incident.
“Contrary to many of the stories in the news, Ms. Stone-Manning was not an innocent bystander, nor was she a victim in the case,” said Mr. Merkley in the letter shared Thursday with The Washington Times. “And, she was most certainly not a hero.”
His account as the criminal investigator on the eco-sabotage case in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest directly challenges Ms. Stone-Manning‘s response on a Senate background questionnaire, in which the nominee contended she had never been the target “to my knowledge” of a federal investigation.
Mr. Merkley said that Ms. Stone-Manning received a “target letter” from the grand jury, “which meant she was going to be indicted on criminal charges for her active participation in planning these crimes,” after which she hired an attorney and negotiated a plea deal with the assistant U.S. attorney.
“Let me be clear. Ms. Stone-Manning only came forward after her attorney struck the immunity deal, and not before she was caught,” wrote Mr. Merkley. “At no time did she come forward of her own volition, and she was never entirely forthcoming. She was aware that she was being investigated in 1989 and again in 1993 when she agreed to the immunity deal with the government to avoid criminal felony prosecution.”
He added: “I know, because I was the Special Agent in Charge of the Investigation.”
The letter dated Wednesday comes as perhaps the most damning indictment yet for the embattled nominee, who already faces fierce opposition from House and Senate Republicans in her bid to lead the agency that manages some 245 million acres of federal land.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, ranking Republican on the committee, said Thursday that he was “grateful to the lead investigator for providing the committee with all of the facts of the case.”
“Not only did Tracy Stone-Manning collaborate with eco-terrorists, she also helped plan the tree spiking in Clearwater National Forest,” Mr. Barrasso said. “She has been covering up these actions for decades, including on her sworn affidavit to the committee. This new information confirms that Tracy Stone-Manning lied to the committee that she was never a target of an investigation. The nominee has no business leading the Bureau of Land Management. President Biden must withdraw her nomination and if he does not, the Senate must vote it down.”
All 10 Senate Energy Republicans urged Mr. Biden in a Wednesday letter to withdraw her nomination, noting that Bob Abbey, who led the agency under President Obama, pulled his support last month for Ms. Stone-Manning.
In a Thursday statement, the administration continued to support Ms. Stone-Manning‘s nomination.
“The Interior Department stands by Tracy‘s statements and written submissions,” said Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz in an email.
In her 1993 grand jury testimony, Ms. Stone-Manning said she was “somewhat shocked” when she learned afterward that the trees had been spiked, but agreed to retype, edit and mail an anonymous warning letter to authorities at the request of one of the perpetrators.
Why mail it? “Because I wanted people to know those trees were spiked. I didn’t want anybody getting hurt as a result of trees being spiked,” Ms. Stone-Manning said.
Mr. Merkley claims that a female witness who came forward in 1992 told authorities that Ms. Stone-Manning was involved in planning the tree-spiking, in which saboteurs drive spikes into trees to stop timber sales.
“She described how Ms. Stone-Manning typed and mailed the letter to the Forest Service,” said Mr. Merkley. “She also recounted a conversation she overheard wherein Ms. Stone-Manning along with other co-conspirators planned the tree spiking and discussed whether to use ceramic or metal spikes in the trees.”
Through the witness, “it became clear that Ms. Stone-Manning was an active member of the original group that planned the spiking of the Post Office Timber Sale trees.”
The episode took place while Ms. Stone-Manning was a graduate student at the University of Montana, during which she was active in the radical environmental group Earth First! from about 1988 to 1991.
Mr. Merkley described her as an influential member who “played an active role in the Earth First! hierarchy.” He also said that he decided to retire early after 28 years with the Forest Service in part over harassment and death threats from Earth First!
“Although it’s been more than 25 years since then, I am still concerned about what the members of the group could do to me and my family,” he said.
In her Senate questionnaire, Ms. Stone-Manning was asked if she had “ever been investigated, arrested, or charged by any federal, state or local law enforcement authority for the violation of any federal, state, or local law, regulation, or ordinance, other than a minor traffic offense.”
Ms. Stone-Manning replied that she had “never been arrested or charged and to my knowledge I have never been the target of such an investigation” while acknowledging her testimony before the grand jury.
“I testified before a federal grand jury in Boise, Idaho, as part of an investigation into an alleged tree-spiking incident related to a timber sale,” she said in the statement. “I later testified in a trial that resulted in the conviction of a responsible individual.”