Biden’s new public lands chief faced with building bridges after confirmation battle
Before she inspired partisan theatrics in the U.S. Senate as the Bureau of Land Management nominee, Tracy Stone-Manning built a reputation in Montana — her home for more than 30 years — as a consensus-builder.
Stone-Manning stood out as an expert at bridging divides between conservationists and loggers, miners and recreational land users, in a region undergoing a rapid and often painful transformation.
Despite that reputation, Stone-Manning’s Senate confirmation process to lead the BLM became one of the most contentious of President Joe Biden’s time in office, with GOP opponents waving tree spikes around in a Senate hearing and accusing her of falsehoods after a conservative media outlet unearthed Stone-Manning’s ties to an act of eco-terrorism in 1989.
Republicans in the evenly divided Senate failed — the Senate confirmed her on a party-line vote Sept. 30, and though she has not yet been formally sworn into office, she began work as BLM director Oct. 7, Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said. Republican senators have not given up and vow they will be keeping a close eye on the BLM.
But people who have worked with Stone-Manning say she will move beyond the confirmation fuss and forge a record similar to that in Montana as she begins work as the first confirmed BLM director in four years, managing 245 million acres of lands and overseeing policy on federal oil and gas leasing, mineral extraction, grazing and other issues.
Her role is key to achieving the president’s climate goals and bringing stability to a federal agency rocked by a move out of its Washington headquarters spearheaded by the Trump administration. That decision now has been reversed by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
“There’s a lot of people who she’s not going to be able to help because they’re too dug in,” her former boss and chief champion, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said in a Tuesday interview. “There’s other people who she’s going to be able to work with because they want to do good things for our public lands. If you don’t want to be part of that, that’s your problem.
“If you do want to be a part of that, Tracy Stone-Manning is a big enough person that she’ll treat you like a normal human being, regardless of what’s happened in the past.”
The Montana years
Associates from her time as a Montana conservation advocate testify to her bridge-building capacity.
“She was always very straightforward, very professional and very helpful in terms of working with folks with differing opinions,” said Gordy Sanders, the resource manager for Pyramid Mountain Lumber Inc., who worked with Stone-Manning on a federal logging and conservation bill while she was on the Tester staff.
Before she worked for Tester, Stone-Manning led the Clark Fork Coalition, a group advocating to protect and restore the Clark Fork River near Missoula.
She is best known during her time there, from 1999 to 2007, for leading the campaign to remove the Milltown Dam, an aging hydroelectric power generator. The dam was downstream from an Anaconda Mining Company site that contaminated the water with arsenic.
Stone-Manning branded the dam “a ticking time bomb” because of the decaying structure’s potential to release the contaminated water further downstream, said David Brooks, who wrote a PhD thesis, later published as a book, on the dam’s removal.
She worked with the agencies involved and interests aligned both for and against removal to eventually reach consensus.
“There were a lot of people involved in that, but she drove that bus,” said Land Tawney, the executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “If that were the only thing that she did in her career, it would be a super successful thing for her to look back on.”
“It remains one of our premier accomplishments as an organization,” said Karen Knudsen, who succeeded Stone-Manning as executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition and remains in that role. “It took some really delicate politics. And that is where Tracy’s abilities to bridge cultural divides, political divides… were really able to shine.”
Later, while working for Tester, she convened loggers and conservationists to develop the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a proposal to allow more logging in some areas and designate others for recreation.
The bill did not pass in the U.S. Senate — Tester is still pushing its goals in other legislation, including the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act that a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee considered Tuesday.
But the coalition that Stone-Manning formed in its development remains, Tawney said.
“The logging community and conservation community in Montana have not seen eye to eye, and that’s putting it very mildly,” Tawney said. “Painstakingly, Tester, through Tracy, was able to pull this coalition together.”
That coalition would have been unthinkable a couple of decades earlier, during the period of violence in the 1980s and 1990s between environmental activists and the timber industry, Tester said.
“She brought those folks together,” Tester said. “Folks who, during the timber wars, you couldn’t get them in the same room, and if you did, violence would have broke out.”
‘Should have disqualified her’
Republicans waged a lengthy campaign to derail Stone-Manning’s nomination because of her actions as a graduate student at the University of Montana in 1989.
Stone-Manning mailed a threatening letter on behalf of a radical environmental group that had spiked trees in Clearwater National Forest to prevent a timber sale. Stone-Manning said she mailed the letter to warn timber workers who might be in danger.
She later testified against men convicted of plotting the act. She has denied further participation, but other accounts contradict hers.
Schwartz declined a request to make Stone-Manning available for an interview for this report.
The legacy of the timber wars, and Stone-Manning’s role in them, is part of what made her confirmation so acrimonious, and what may continue to be an obstacle to working with elected Republicans.
Sanders, the logging executive in Montana, said he didn’t know about Stone-Manning’s involvement with tree-spiking when they worked on the timber jobs bill, but that it didn’t change his opinion.
While she may have moved beyond her association with radical groups to build coalitions that include the timber industry, national Republicans have only hardened against her.
In one example of how heated the rhetoric became, U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican from Montana, tweeted a comparison of Stone-Manning to the Taliban.
Rosendale’s position also showed how decades-old events transformed Stone-Manning’s reputation once they hit the national scene: As a state senator in 2013, Rosendale voted to confirm Stone-Manning for a state position, though she was asked about the tree-spiking incident during that confirmation process.
Through a spokesman, Rosendale declined an interview request for this report.
As recently as Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who led the fight against Stone-Manning’s confirmation, was still railing against her.
He used his time at a Tuesday hearing for nominees to non-BLM jobs to ask if the nominees had ever threatened federal workers “verbally or in writing,” a clear allusion to the letter Stone-Manning admitted to sending to the U.S. Forest Service aggressively warning of spiked trees.
Stone-Manning’s “collaboration with eco-terrorists, lies to the Senate, and extreme views should have disqualified her to oversee America’s public lands,” Barrasso said in a written statement to States Newsroom.
“Senate Republicans will conduct rigorous oversight of Tracy Stone-Manning and the agency she leads. Now that she is director of the BLM, we will demand truthful and prompt answers to the questions we ask and we expect her to testify in person at hearings.”
Jim Baca, who was the first BLM director under President Bill Clinton in 1993, drew parallels between his and Stone-Manning’s confirmation processes. Senate Republicans dragged his confirmation out because they objected to his record as “a known environmentalist,” he said.
Still, Baca took office in May.
“And here were are in October she’s just confirmed? That’s crazy. It’s just nuts,” he said. “A lot of it is drama and each senator needs to get into the confirmation hearings and make a big show.”
Tester said the Republican opposition may have been motivated in part by a desire to score points against a political opponent. Stone-Manning supported her former boss, Gov. Steve Bullock, in his 2020 challenge to incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
“There are people who want to settle that score beyond just what the electoral outcome was,” Tester said.
Asked for comment, Daines’ staff pointed to a news release after the Senate vote in which he said that it is “now up to Stone-Manning to rebuild trust with Montanans, stakeholders including loggers and Bureau of Land Management employees, and show that she will lead the agency in a bipartisan and pragmatic way.”
Aside from the tree-spiking scandal, Stone-Manning’s record might have seemed ideal for a role that requires mediating between industries and communities with vastly different desires for public lands.
“The director’s job for the Bureau of Land Management is one of the toughest jobs in America,” said Tawney. “Their job is to think about multiple use. You’re never going to make anybody completely happy because if you do that, it means it’s at the expense of someone else.”
Her work in Montana, where Tawney is also based, has “absolutely” prepared her to reconcile disparate groups, he said.
“While there might’ve been a rocky start, she’s not going there to sit on her hands,” he said. “She’s going there to do work. And that work is going to take consensus building for it to last a long time.”
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