By falling in line behind Tracy Stone-Manning, Democrats may have ensured her confirmation to head the Bureau of Land Management, but they also muddied the Biden administration’s message on domestic extremism — and handed Republicans an explosive ecoterrorism narrative.
Moments after the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced the nomination Thursday on a party-line vote, the Colorado Republican Party ripped Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper for supporting Ms. Stone-Manning despite her role in a 1989 tree-spiking plot.
“This morning, John Hickenlooper voted to move forward an eco-terrorist and proven liar to lead the Bureau of Land Management,” Colorado GOP chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said in a Thursday press release. “I believe that Colorado ranchers, loggers, farmers, and outdoors enthusiasts all deserve a leader at the BLM who isn’t an extremist.”
The president unveiled last month his National Strategy on Countering Domestic Terrorism, which includes environmental extremism, but critics warned that he risks undercutting his own agenda by refusing to bend on the BLM pick.
“President Biden has made it clear that rooting out domestic terrorism is a top priority for his administration,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming Republican, said in a Thursday op-ed. “If that’s the case, Ms. Stone-Manning has no business being considered by the Senate.”
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the committee‘s ranking Republican, said it was “astonishing to me that Democrats are digging in to defend a proven liar and an eco-terrorist collaborator.”
He predicted a fight over Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s petition to discharge the nomination out of committee, which tied on a 10-10 party-line vote, and promised to drag Vice President Kamala Harris into the fray by forcing her to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate.
“Sen. Schumer came to the floor today and made it very clear that he will support this deeply flawed nominee,” Mr. Barrasso said on the Senate floor. “Will other Democrats do it as well?”
Sen. Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, who held up a tree spike at the Thursday committee meeting, warned Democrats that as BLM director, Ms. Stone-Manning would become the “face” of the Biden administration.
“My friends, look, if you want to confirm her, you absolutely can, but believe me, this stain on this administration will last for the next three-and-a-half years,” Mr. Risch said.
The committee vote ended weeks of speculation about whether the Biden administration would pull the nomination — one White House official told NBC News it was a “massive vetting failure” — over opposition from Republicans and Bob Abbey, who served as BLM director in the Obama administration.
Instead, Democrats presented Thursday a united front on Ms. Stone-Manning, a former activist in the radical environmental group Earth First! who testified in the tree-spiking conspiracy case after striking an immunity deal with federal prosecutors in 1993.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told reporters during her Denver trip that she was confident the nominee would be confirmed to head the BLM, which manages 245 million acres of federal land.
“Tracy Stone-Manning has a wealth of experience and knowledge about all issues to do with our public lands,” Ms. Haaland said in the Colorado Sun. “We have full faith that she will put her nose to the grindstone as soon as she’s confirmed with the Senate and work cooperatively with everyone across the federal government.”
In his floor remarks, Mr. Schumer called Ms. Stone-Manning an “honest broker” with a history of working across the aisle as regional director for Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, and chief of staff to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Mr. Schumer charged Republicans with “trying to turn this consensus-driven, well-respected nominee into another partisan flashpoint by dredging up a letter she forwarded while in graduate school and claiming it was evidence that she is, quote, an eco-terrorist.”
“The claim is just as hysterical as it sounds,” Mr. Schumer said. “Ms. Stone-Manning has the full support of the chair of the committee, the senator from West Virginia; Mr. Tester, the senator from Montana, and from me.”
He referred to Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, whose vote was pivotal in tipping the balance for Ms. Stone-Manning after weeks of calls for her nomination to be withdrawn.
Mr. Manchin, who chairs the committee, chalked up her part in the tree-spiking incident to being a “youthful sympathizer” — she was a graduate student at the University of Montana — and said that such episodes shouldn’t “ruin your life.”
She admitted in her 1993 testimony to retyping, editing and mailing a profanity-laced anonymous letter warning of the spiked trees in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest at the behest of one of the perpetrators, saying she did it to protect forestry workers.
“Ms. Stone-Manning was never charged with spiking trees. She was never tried for spiking trees, and none of the men who did spike the trees ever suggested that she did,” Mr. Manchin said. “Nor was she a target in the investigation, despite being one of many to provide evidence.”
In a sworn background questionnaire, however, she said she had never been the target of a federal investigation, a claim hotly disputed by Republicans who accused her of lying to the committee.
They cited a subpoena requiring her to turn over hair, handwriting and fingerprint samples; a 1992 “target letter” from the grand jury, and her own 1993 interview with the Missoulian, which reported, “Stone-Manning said she could have been charged with conspiracy because she mailed the letter for [John] Blount, were it not for her agreement with the U.S. Attorney.”
Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said her statement about not being investigated “simply was not true.”
“It is apparent that she wasn’t charged. That isn’t the question before us,” Mr. Lee said. “She wasn’t charged because she decided to cooperate with a law enforcement investigation. I’m glad she did that, it was helpful to the investigation, that is a good thing, but it simply isn’t accurate to say that she wasn’t involved in the underlying criminal conspiracy. She was by her own admission.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, said she was the victim of “character assassination” and that Republicans were “hellbent on dragging Ms. Stone-Manning’s name through the mud” despite her previously “impeccable” reputation.
“This is over-the-top opposition to her nomination,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat. “It’s really about trying to stop her and stop the past of BLM’s — basically the issues that are at stake here: oil, gas, coal, mineral extraction, and where we’re going in the future.”
Retired Forest Service agent Michael W. Merkley, lead investigator on the case, said in a July 14 letter to the committee that she was “aware she was being investigated in 1989 and again in 1993 when she agreed to a deal with the government to avoid criminal prosecution.”
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney George Breitsameter, the lead prosecutor “declined to say if Stone-Manning was specifically targeted as a suspect and said that just because someone is being investigated by law enforcement doesn’t mean prosecutors are on board,” The Associated Press said in a July 15 report.
Mr. Lee pointed to the letter she retyped and edited on a rented typewriter, which included the line, “You bastards go in there anyway and a lot of people could get hurt.”
“That is classic threatening language,” he said. “There is no other way to interpret that. She and her cohorts used overt threats of violence — there is nothing subtle here — in order to achieve a political goal. This is the definition of terrorism.”