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On Tracy Stone-Manning, Doing Dumb Things In Your 20s And The Game Of 'Gotcha'
August 11, 2021
On Tracy Stone-Manning, Doing Dumb Things In Your 20s And The Game Of 'Gotcha'
As Biden's nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management heads toward a vote in the Senate, we reflect in MoJo's 'The Week That Was' on efforts to torpedo her confirmation
Tracy Stone Manning in Montana. As her nomination to lead the Bureau of Land Management heads toward a confirmation vote, US Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Steve Daines of Montana stand in opposition based on an event that happened when she was a young student at the University of Montana. Photo courtesy Tracy Stone-Manning
In “The Week That Is,” journalist and Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson joins MoJo’s national Washington DC correspondent Tom Sadler in discussions of topical events relating to the nation’s capital city and/or the public land West. Today's conversation explores President Biden's nomination of Montana's Tracy Stone-Manning to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A crucial vote on whether she will be confirmed is expected to come soon before he US Senate.
While observers closely watching contentious hearings, in which Stone-Manning was accused by Western Republicans of having ties to criminal monkey wrenchers who put spikes in trees to halt logging decades ago, many believe she’ll be approved on a party-line vote. Democrats have a razor thin margin of control in the Senate.
Over the course of her career, Stone-Manning has served as executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition that aims to clean up and protect the Clark Fork River in western Montana whose headwaters begin around Butte and flow through Missoula before eventually becoming part of the Columbia.
She also has been a regional office director for US Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont), chief of staff for former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and, most recently had a senior position with the National Wildlife Federation related to public lands and conservation.
TOM SADLER: Here we go again, Biden’s nominee to head the BLM is spinning up Republicans in the West to attempt to torpedo her confirmation.
TODD WILKINSON: Yes, what’s interesting right out of the gate, if Tracy Stone-Manning wins approval she would be the first formal director of the BLM in five years—a period when that federal land management agency dealt with a lot of important issues. Permitting oil and gas leasing, which has implications for climate change, the environment and local economies. Greenlighting new hardrock mines. Issuing livestock grazing permits in the 12 Western states and that includes, by the way, preventing native bison from being allowed to graze on public lands where non-native cattle do. Battling wildfires in forests under its jurisdiction and rangeland. Dealing with huge spikes in outdoor recreation. And water concerns.
SADLER: I bet many MoJo readers have heard of the BLM—it’s a different BLM from the social justice movement Black Lives Matter— but didn’t know much about it. We in the East often hear about national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges, but not what the BLM does.
TW: The BLM has oversight over a quarter of a billion acres of public lands. For folks who want to put it perspective, that’s one-eighth of the land mass of the US, with huge BLM tracts in Alaska and tens of millions of forests under its purview. Although the agency is regarded by some as the ugly sibling of national parks within the Interior Department, the decisions made by the agency have huge implications for the West.
SADLER: You just mentioned something that catches my attention. You said she would be the first official director in five years. Has it really been that long?.
TW: Well, during the Trump Administration, the President’s nominee William Perry Pendley never won approval by the Senate and so he was in an “acting” role. In fact, some of the sweeping decisions he made were declared invalid by a federal judge. His tenure as acting BLM director was controversial and earlier he headed the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has sided with resource extraction industries in trying to weaken environmental laws. Pendley was on record, prior to joining the BLM, of supporting the selling off or divestiture of federal public lands to states and private interests. He was tapped by the Trump Administration to be director of BLM after the agency already had moved to shrink the size of national monuments in southern Utah—Bears Ears being the most prominent.
SADLER: So, set the stage for us on Stone-Manning. How does she compare to Pendley?
TW: Look, she and Pendley do have radically divergent perceptions of what the future of the American West should look like. Pendley is a no- or limited-regulation thinker who believes the free market can be trusted to carry out aggressive natural resource extraction activities to create wealth and jobs. Definitely an Old West approach. Stone-Manning hails from a state where the Copper Kings of Butte demonstrated in the late 1800s and the early 20th century why trusting in that paradigm can be flawed thinking. Mining that went almost entirely unregulated produced one of the largest federal Superfund contamination sites in the US with a clean-up that might extend forever. Stone-Manning dealt with that legacy when she headed the Clark Fork Coalition trying to bring the Clark Fork River, which had basically been destroyed by toxic tailings, back to life.
Apart from Butte, it ought to be noted, there are numerous examples of the public having to pay for clean-up of environmental messes that were permitted by the BLM. Stone-Manning definitely believes that government regulation plays an important role in stewardship of public lands.
SADLER: We hear the sycophants of the former President claim that environmental laws are anti-capitalism, anti-progress, anti-prosperity. Hopefully we will see some of the damage that administration wrought undone.
TW: The counter argument to those advocating for minimal government would be that environmental laws result in responsible capitalism which does not allow companies to notch private profits from public resources and then externalize the costs of doing business on the public. Environmental laws, incidentally, have been the cornerstone of conservation in Greater Yellowstone. The benefits of conservation in protecting wildlife, water quality and habitat have fueled a multi-billion dollar annual nature tourism industry.
SADLER: What else can we glean from Stone-Manning's background?
TW: She has been associated with the Democrat Party and political campaigns but that’s the way it has worked for both Democrats and Republicans when Presidents push forward nominees for high posts in government. US. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, joined in by US Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, both Republicans, have attempted to get her nomination withdrawn based on her loose association with people, during her 20s, who were planning to spike trees to halt timber sales in old growth forests.
SADLER: I read about that. Is the allegation true? It was a long time ago, right?
TW: Is Barrasso’s portrayal of Stone-Manning entirely accurate? Not entirely. And this is why fact-checking of what politicians say by the media is important. This is what we know and, by the way, I have interviewed her over the years in different job roles she’s had. Her husband, Richard "Dick" Manning, has been a journalist who’s done important work on environmental and social topics in books and for national publications.
Tracy Stone-Manning was a young environmentalist and graduate student attending the University of Montana during the years when the timber wars were raging in the Pacific Northwest. In those days, a lot of students in Missoula were involved in protests and it was a small community. She only became aware that some activists allegedly affiliated with EarthFirst! were planning to spike trees in the Clearwater National Forest after they had prepared an anonymous letter for making to the Forest Service telling them to stop the timber sale because trees had been spiked. One of them handed Stone-Manning the letter and asked her to mail it. She retyped it and put it in the mail. But she had otherwise no involvement.
SADLER: I think I remember that. What eventually happened?
TW: Two people were arrested and convicted and Stone-Manning was given prosecutorial immunity because she agreed to serve as a witness. One person was sentenced to 17 months in prison. What’s important to mention is that the issue was raised earlier when she was Gov. Steve Bullock’s nominee to head the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and underwent grilling before members of the Republican-dominated state legislature. Her appointment was approved. You can also bet that those who hired her on Tester's staff gave her a thorough vetting.
SADLER Back here, Sen. Barrasso made some serious charges.
TW: He wrote in a statement: “Tracy Stone-Manning collaborated with eco-terrorists. She worked with extreme environmental activists who spiked trees, threatening the lives and livelihoods of loggers. While she was given immunity from prosecution to testify against her companions in court, her actions were disgraceful.” And he invited a former Forest Service law enforcement agent to testify.
SADLER: What do you make of his characterization?
TW: It’s interesting or at least I think it is. Sen. Barrasso is a medical doctor by profession. He’s smart. He’s amiable to some. He once was a celebrity on a local TV station in Wyoming This is neither a criticism of him nor a defense of Stone-Manning. But Sen. Barrasso’s rhetoric, if you’ve been following him as I have, is known for, as an example, portraying almost any serious environmental regulation or advocacy by environmentalists as radical. And that pretty much characterizes the prevailing public attitude in most of Wyoming where there’s a negative knee-jerk reaction to anything involving Democrats or environmental regulation. I get that; it’s hard to make a living in Wyoming. There's a lot of downstate resentment/envy directed toward Jackson Hole where the economy is powered by green thinking.
SADLER: Wyoming, at least outside of Jackson Hole, doesn’t seem to be a state where there’s much dissent tolerated when it comes to believing natural resource extraction will shape the future the same as it has the past.
TW: Democrats and their pro-environmental philosophy, again outside of Jackson Hole, have found it hard to gain traction. The state continues to veer way to the right of center politically and Sen. Barrasso probably would not get re-elected if he didn’t tack along with the direction of those partisan winds. There is, however, the question of truth and honesty. He seems to trust in the science surrounding Covid-19 vaccinations but he has minimized the science of human-caused climate change, which isn’t surprising since Wyoming’s been the largest coal-producing state in the country. He has also opposed stricter regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants and cast them as being extreme. Interestingly, the medical doctor voted against tougher standards even though science says that lead, mercury and other toxic chemicals coming out of smokestacks are linked to higher rates of asthma, lung and other ailments.
What does full-field oil and gas development look like when it's permitted by the BLM? Like this, in central California. The BLM has come under sharp criticism for its permitting of energy development in the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming, too where gas drilling and its related infrastructure has disrupted wildlife migrations, had negative impacts on mule deer an destroyed leks used by imperiled Greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy Bob Wick/BLM
SADLER: What’s the gist of their opposition to Stone-Manning. Senators Barrasso and Daines are trying to use criminal prosecution of one of Stone-Manning’s youthful acquaintances in college, when she was 23 years old, to either force her or the Biden Administration to withdraw her nomination?
TW: Yes, and let it be known that their resistance to her nomination wasn’t unexpected in these hyper-partisan times. Democrats were relentless in grilling Pendley. But there's a larger question in play and it applies more widely to American politics from the national level all the way on down to the local level. And that is: should youthful indiscretions or other dumb things young people often do in their early years become disqualifying yokes that accompany them for the rest of their lives?
SADLER: In my opinion it is the worst form of “gotcha” politics I can think of. Really, let he, she or they who is without sin cast the first stone; the rest, in my opinion, should sit down and shut up.
When it comes to the substance of the claim, permit me to quote Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a conservative Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, “I have been unable to find any credible evidence in the exhaustive records of the tree-spiking case that Ms. Stone-Manning is an eco-terrorist. What I find instead is compelling evidence that she built a solid reputation over the past three decades as a dedicated public servant and problem solver.”
It makes one wonder what the Republicans on the committee are looking at.
TW: Regarding youthful indiscretion, allow me to offer a parallel that the Bozeman ecologist Lance Craighead once shared with me: Young male grizzly bears, the human equivalent of teenagers or twentysomethings, are notorious for wandering around and occasionally "getting into trouble" with people and, for the most part, they are given second and third chances. Often, once those bears mature and hormonal levels in their brains are normalized, they settle down. Young people, especially young male humans, sometimes are kind of like those subadult grizzlies but most end up being contributors to society.
SADLER: Not sure humans are better than the griz on that score. We seem to need a few more “lesson” before we learn.
An issue certain to be discussed again is whether the BLM will allow the American Prairie Reserve to graze bison on historic cattle allotments administered by the BLM in central Montana. Local opposition forced the issue to be shelved and legislators in Montana passed a law that would make it more difficult, even though the conservative free-market thinktank PERC in Bozeman sided with APR. Photo courtesy BLM
TW: You’ve been in the thick of current partisanship and you’ve attended many a hearing going back to your days when you were a staffer for Republican US Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire.
SADLER: This stuff about Stone-Manning does remind me of my early days in the Senate. Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork had gone down in the face of nasty partisan resistance so Reagan nominated Douglas Ginsburg. Ginsburg withdrew because he smoked weed “on a few occasions” in the 60’s and 70’s when he was a student and then assistant professor at Harvard.
What the hell did that had to do with qualifications as a justice was beyond me at the time and still is. He had previously been confirmed by the Senate to a seat on the US Court of Appeals in DC. Now smoking a little weed was a deal breaker. It was just disgraceful “gotcha” politics pure and simple.
TW: And let us not forget Presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s eye-browsing claim that he took a toke of pot but didn’t inhale.
SADLER: Is there more behind the resistance to Stone-Manning’s confirmation?
TW: Very likely, I would say. Stone-Manning served as chief of staff for Bullock and Bullock ran in 2020 to unseat Daines and am sure there’s no love lost between her and the senator from Bozeman. But the talk on the street is that Republicans are still smarting from the blistering attacks waged against Pendley, who by the way, is originally from Wyoming and was a sidekick at Mountain States Legal Foundation to Wyomingite and former Interior Secretary James Watt.
SADLER: With Stone-Manning, is this just a matter of raking a rival party’s nominee over the coals and then confirming her or is it a crass display of setting statesmanship aside and merely trying to get even? Everything I’ve read about Stone-Manning she’s hardly a radical. Her boss, Governor Bullock, was a centrist who would’ve been called a conservative if he had come from a liberal state.
TW: I don’t know what it is.
SADLER: Who is in her corner?
TW: Democrats, of course, along with some Republican moderates and a wide array of other groups. The National Wildlife Federation's Action Fund put together sort of a list that includes people affiliated with traditional natural resource extraction industries.
SADLER: I’m a conservative but I don’t see Stone-Manning as the idealogue Pendley is.
TW: With regard to Pendley, he did suggest only a few years ago having public lands divested, either sold off to private interests or handed over to states. Numerous analyses have suggested that states do not have the resources to adequately manage them as well.
SADLER: Those are two of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. Not a shocker he wound up in the previous administration. He fits the type.
TW: A valid question can be asked. Should someone who doesn't believe in public lands, especially a federal agency like the BLM that has jurisdiction over hundreds of millions of acres of public land, be put in charge of managing it? It goes beyond reform. It’s kind of like a medical doctor who is bound by the Hippocratic Oath advising patients against taking the Covid vaccine.
SADLER: It’s more than a valid question, it is fundamental. To continue my cliché streak; why would we want to welcome a fox to the hen house? Of course, we wouldn’t. We must make sure the folks in charge have the interest of the mission of the agency they lead as their primary reason for being there. And it’s our job to call them out when they don’t by the way.
TW: I agree, especially when politicians of any party say things that are grossly contradicted by facts and peer-reviewed science.
SADLER: I want to return to the point of Sen. Barrasso wanting to derail Stone-Manning’s nomination for something she did 40 years ago, in which she actually did the right thing by working with investigators to prevent a potentially dangerous monkeywrenching action. How do we get qualified people to run for office or accept positions in an administration when every part of their life is put under a microscope and the actions are then judged out of context or worse?
TW: For one, both sides need to stop claiming that they are holier than though and feign outrage when someone on the other side of the aisle does something yet they tolerate the same conduct or look the other way if it involves a member of their own team. Would love to hear what MoJo readers think about this.
SADLER: Should we only draw our elected officials from a pool of those who have lived straightlaced lives when they were young?
TW: Absolutely not. Let’s expect, however, that it’s the nature of being young to make mistakes, take risks and then learn from them. It’s sort of the theme of every memorable high school and college commencement speech, isn’t it? The best leaders, the deepest thinkers, those with the most compassion tend not be goody two shoes people who grew up living a monastic life but those who did occasionally knuckleheaded things and were administered hard lessons. Of course, we’re not talking about people who commit heinous violent crimes.
SADLER: It makes me wonder, should there be a statute of limitation on a candidate’s “young male grizzly bears” behavior?
TW: What do you think?
SADLER: I’d say it depends, which is not really a good answer. The current version of the GOP forgives all forms of horrible behavior starting with the former president, which makes the political hypocrisy that much clearer. The current leaders in the Democrat Party including President Biden, reacted hard and fast with New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
TW: If not a statute of limitation, then at least expecting a modeling of adult behavior and considering the totality of a person’s being. Assess them on their actions rather than words and their record amassed over time rather than in one young thoughtless moment.
SADLER: I don’t disagree. Should there be side boards on what is relevant to the discharge of their duties?
TW: I sense a rhetorical question here. Of course, if you’re a mob boss, that might disqualify you from the Presidency or holding public office or being nominated to serve as Treasury Secretary. And then there are conflict of interests, which used to be a bigger deal. Is that what you mean?
SADLER: What about being busted for smoking pot ten years ago and someone asserting that person is incapable of adjudicating legal issues? Or how about holding radical ideas or engaging in activity that results in the FBI starting a file on you yet evolving to having different perspectives as facts, evidence, and conditions affect your point of view. Or you simply get older and wiser?
TW: My humble take: we ought not punish people for being human. As primates, none of us are perfect. Seems like oldsters who do dumb things, ordinarily committed by young people, ought to know better.
SADLER: For sure, but I like to think our elected leaders and the people who work for them should be held to a standard that puts the public good at the top of the motivation list.
We’ve covered a lot of ground. Next time, let’s talk about another well-known elected official from Wyoming who calls the Greater Yellowstone town of Wilson in Jackson Hole, home—Rep. Liz Cheney.
TW: Of course, there’s nothing contentious on that topic to discuss, is there, Tom? Until then.