A Tree Spiking Incident From The 1980s Is Looming Over Biden’s BLM Nominee

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The Bureau of Land Management will learn Wednesday how many of its career staff will follow orders and move to new posts across the West. About two dozen positions will be based at the BLM’s new national headquarters in the small, high-desert city of Grand Junction. More than 70 percent of Mesa County is public land, including this rocky swath, about 15 miles from new head office.

An eco-terrorism incident from over 30 years ago is casting a long, dark shadow over the nomination of Tracy Stone-Manning to be the next director of the Bureau of Land Management. The Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee will vote on whether to advance her nomination on Thursday.

While a lot of the facts of the case are in dispute, what most people agree on is this: In 1989, when she was a grad student, Stone-Manning mailed a letter to the Forest Service warning them that someone had spiked trees to prevent logging in Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. A few years later, she was granted immunity and testified against the two men, people she knew, who were eventually convicted of the crime.

Tree spiking is when a nail or a metal rod is driven into a tree, sometimes hidden in the bark. When a logger saws into the tree and hits the spike, it can shatter the chain saw and send shards of metal flying. Radical environmental groups used the tactic over the decades, in an effort to make it too unsafe to harvest timber in sensitive areas.

Recently, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee asked U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen if someone was made aware of a tree spiking incident, should they immediately alert the police or the forest service? Christiansen replied yes.

In written testimony, Stone-Manning said she was not involved in the Idaho spiking operation and believes she was notifying the authorities by retyping and sending the warning letter written by others. 

What Republican senators are saying

Republicans countered that Stone-Manning made false and misleading statements to the committee about her involvement in the incident and her ties to the radical environmental group Earth First when she was a student.

Utah Senator Mike Lee told Fox News her actions counted as supporting eco-terrorism: “conspiring with criminals to make vile threats. She also lied to the Senate about her involvement with that. She’s not fit to run the Bureau of Land Management.”

But the decades-old incident is pretty muddy. The two men who were convicted of tree spiking told E&E News that Stone-Manning wasn't involved, but offered differing accounts for when she learned about it. Republicans note that a federal employee who investigated the case alleged that she was actually a target of the investigation. They have asked Biden to withdraw Stone-Manning’s nomination. And they point out that former Obama BLM Director Bob Abbey agrees with them. Stone-Manning supporters note Obama's other BLM Director, Neil Kornze, and former Clinton BLM head Jim Baca both continue to support her nod.  

Her involvement in this tree spiking case has been a matter of public record for decades, but didn’t enter into the confirmation fight until recent weeks. Not one Republican senator asked her about it during her confirmation hearing in early June.  

Now the stage is set for a partisan and contentious committee vote.

What Democratic Senators are saying

Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee continue to support Stone-Manning’s nomination, including committee chair Sen. Joe Manchin and Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper. 

Aaron Weiss, Deputy Director at the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities, thinks it’s Stone-Manning’s more recent political activity that has riled up Republicans. She supported her old boss, former Montana governor Steve Bullock, in his failed senate campaign against GOP Sen. Steve Daines last year.

“So they seized on this incident from 30 year ago, where Tracy did the right thing,” he said. He wants Senators to instead look at what she has done over the course of her professional career. “She has a 30 year track record of working with all stakeholders to build solutions that work for the outdoors.”

Center for Western Priorities is one of several dozen conservation and outdoor recreation groups that continue to support Stone-Manning’s nomination. But she also has her opponents outside of the Capitol, too.

“At some point, you have to wonder at the judgement of nominating someone to lead a federal land management agency, BLM, who has a history of threatening a sister land management agency,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance. “A BLM Director should be able to balance multiple uses of federal lands. Someone so hostile to productive uses of public lands that she was willing to put timber workers at risk is unfit to head BLM.”

What the director of the BLM oversees

As head of the BLM, which oversees more than 245 million acres of public lands largely in the West, Stone-Manning would have a say on climate change policies, as well as mining and oil and gas leasing on public lands. She would also be taking over an agency that lost hundreds of employees and suffered from low morale during the Trump administration.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “It’s important that we get a qualified leader in place there. And Tracy Stone-Manning has the credentials and the qualifications and a really strong reputation of working across different stakeholder groups — often those in opposition to one another — to accomplish things together. And that’s exactly the person we need.”

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said he met with Stone-Manning and discussed several issues, including climate change, forest and rangeland restoration, and the importance of keeping the BLM headquarters in Colorado. “Tracy is well suited to be the next Director because she understands the importance of listening to local input, has years of experience bridging partisan divides, and recognizes the value of our public lands,” he said.

The recent back and forth over her background have not changed Biden’s view that Stone-Manning is “eminently qualified” to lead the public lands agency. A White House official said “Tracy Stone-Manning is a dedicated public servant who has years of experience and a proven track record of finding solutions and common ground when it comes to our public lands and waters.”

And Biden spokesperson Jen Psaki said at a recent press briefing that the president “stands by his nominee and looks forward to her getting confirmed.”

If she is, Stone-Manning will be the first confirmed BLM Director since the Obama Administration; the bureau operated under acting heads throughout former president Trump’s four years. The committee vote is expected to fall along party lines, setting up a potential 50-50 split on the Senate floor, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the final yes needed for confirmation.

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