WASHINGTON — Democrats are preparing to muscle through the nomination of Tracy Stone-Manning to head the Bureau of Land Management, despite united opposition from Republicans who have branded her an “eco-terrorist” because of her involvement in a tree-spiking episode as a graduate student in the 1980s.
The vote over her nomination, scheduled for Thursday in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, sets up a battle between Republicans and Democrats over an agency at the center of climate policy.
The Bureau of Land Management is an agency within the Interior Department that oversees grazing, logging and drilling on 245 million acres of public land and manages 700 million acres of mineral rights. It is responsible for balancing oil, gas and coal extraction with recreation and the protection of natural resources. It also is key to President Biden’s goal to phase out oil and gas drilling on federal lands — a plan that is being challenged by 15 states led by Republican attorneys general.
“The concerns that many folks have about Stone-Manning’s nomination is that she’s going to be more on the side of protecting public lands for public uses, and the folks who want public lands to be used for more development don’t like that,” said Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“These other issues are being used as a way to block her confirmation,” he said. “I don’t think anybody really cares what she did 32 years ago.”
Ms. Stone-Manning, 55, has built a career in environmental policy, working as an aide to Senator Jon Tester of Montana and as chief of staff to former Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, both Democrats, as well as the head of Montana’s environment agency, where she gained a reputation as a bridge-builder among environmentalists, ranchers and fossil fuel interests. She is currently the senior adviser for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit conservation group.
But Republicans argue that her actions in 1989, and her account of that episode in the intervening years, make her unfit for the post. They wrote to President Biden asking him to withdraw her nomination and they plan to vote against her as a bloc in the committee.
Republicans also fought the choice of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet secretary, because of her opposition to expanded oil and gas drilling on public lands. While Ms. Haaland narrowly won confirmation, that process morphed into a proxy fight over climate policy.
Conservatives were more successful in March in forcing the Biden administration to withdraw its pick for deputy interior secretary, Elizabeth Klein, after senators from coal and oil states objected to Ms. Klein’s belief that the nation needs to curb its use of fossil fuels.
“Oil and gas, coal, those industries are declining or facing serious declines,” said John Leshy, an emeritus law professor at the University of California Hastings.
He attributed that to market forces more than government policies, but said the Interior Department had become the place where the fiercest battles over the future of those industries are currently playing out.
“There’s a lot of frustration connected with that,” Mr. Leshy said. “And we’re at a moment when those frustrations have come to the fore.”
Ms. Stone-Manning has never been charged with a crime and did not participate in the effort three decades ago to drive 500 pounds of metal spikes into trees in the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, federal crimes for which two men were later convicted.
Tree spiking is a tactic to try to prevent logging by inserting metal rods into trees that could damage the blade of a saw. It was used in the 1980s by activists who hoped to make it uneconomical to cut down trees but the practice was dangerous; spikes can injure or kill loggers.
Ms. Stone-Manning, then a 23-year old graduate student, retyped and mailed a profanity-laced letter to the United States Forest Service on behalf of one of the activists who spiked the trees. Ms. Stone-Manning has described her act as an effort to warn authorities and protect people from harm.
Republicans have accused Ms. Stone-Manning of lying to lawmakers about whether she had ever been a target of an investigation, an accusation the administration has denied.
The 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee are expected to split evenly along party lines. That would force Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, to discharge the nomination, a rare move that would bring it before the full Senate for a vote. If the Senate also divides along party lines, Democrats would need Vice President Harris to break the tie.
The White House issued a statement this week in support of Ms. Stone-Manning.
“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,” said Vedant Patel, a White House spokesman. “She is exceptionally qualified to be the next director of the Bureau of Land Management.”
Republicans say that new statements from figures involved in the spiking episode indicate that Ms. Stone-Manning was more involved than she claimed.
“We now know that President Biden’s nominee to run the Bureau of Land Management lied to the Senate about her alleged participation in eco-terrorism,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said in a statement. “The White House should immediately withdraw her nomination.”
Mr. Tester said the accusations against Ms. Stone-Manning “smack of political smear.”
“The Tracy Stone-Manning I know is someone who spent the last 20-years-plus bringing people together from both sides of the aisle from all components of industry,” he said.
According to court documents, in the spring of 1989 when Ms. Stone-Manning was an environmental studies graduate student at the University of Montana in Missoula, activists with Earth First!, including John Blount and Jeffrey Fairchild, drove nails into old-growth trees in the Idaho forest in an attempt to stop a timber sale.
Afterward, Ms. Stone-Manning testified, Mr. Blount asked her to mail a letter he gave her warning the Forest Service, which she did after retyping it. She later told prosecutors that was the first time she learned about the tree spiking and was “shocked” by it.
In 1993, Ms. Stone-Manning testified against Mr. Fairchild and Mr. Blount in exchange for immunity.
Last week, Michael W. Merkley, a retired U.S. Forest Service investigator who was the special agent in charge of the case, wrote to Senate lawmakers and said that when the government initially investigated the tree-spiking crime Ms. Stone-Manning was unhelpful and combative. He also said that she received a “target letter” indicating she would be indicted in connection with her participation.
“Ms. Stone-Manning came forward only after her attorney struck the immunity deal and not before she was caught,” Mr. Merkley said.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, cites that and a 1990 interview that Ms. Stone-Manning gave as evidence that she lied in response to written questions from the committee asking if she had ever been the target of a criminal investigation.
“She’s an eco-terrorist,” Mr. Barrasso said in an interview, adding, “She’s lied to the committee, misled the committee in terms of her past behavior and investigations.”
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies, said opposition to Ms. Stone-Manning is based on her behavior in 1989, not her opposition to expanding fossil fuel drilling on public lands. “It’s not like we’re going to get someone from industry if we get rid of Tracy Stone-Manning,” Ms. Sgamma said. “This is about her judgment.”
Mr. Fairchild, who spent time in prison for his role in the tree-spiking incident, defended Stone-Manning when reached by telephone.
“Having been one of the main participants in that event and one of the main planners, to the best of my recollection she knew nothing about it beforehand,” Mr. Fairchild said, adding that Ms. Stone-Manning was known for opposing violence.
“Tracy was always a moderating voice,” he said. “We were talking about ending the logging of old growth forests, and she was the first one to say ‘Yeah but loggers have families, too.’”
Mr. Tester said he also was not worried about the allegations. “We have the votes to get her confirmed,” he said.