A convicted felon and a former Forest Service investigator are contradicting Tracy Stone-Manning’s portrayal of her role in a 1980s tree-spiking incident in Idaho that has taken center stage in her nomination to lead the Bureau of Land Management.
But their accounts also offer conflicting information about Stone-Manning’s alleged involvement.
Stone-Manning, currently the senior adviser for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation, has long-maintained that she had a peripheral role in efforts by Earth First activists to derail a planned timber sale in an old-growth section of national forest in 1989. She has said she only retyped and mailed a letter warning the Forest Service about the spiking, acting out of concern that authorities be notified.
But in a letter released today by Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee’s top Republican, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a retired Forest Service investigator alleged that Stone-Manning "was an active member of the original group that planned the spiking."
Retired Special Agent Michael Merkley wrote in the letter that another witness in the sabotage incident "recounted a conversation she had overheard wherein Ms. Stone-Manning along with other co-conspirators planned the tree-spiking and discussed whether to use ceramic or metal spikes in the trees."
Merkley, who first spoke to E&E News last month as an anonymous source — citing concerns for his safety — alleged in the letter that he had previously received "death threats" from environmental activists.
"Although it’s been more than 25 years since then, I am still concerned about what the members of this group could do to me and my family," Merkley wrote. "However, despite this … I feel compelled to come forward and share the truth with you."
In his previous interview with E&E News, Merkley likewise alleged that Stone-Manning had refused to cooperate with investigators, potentially slowing down the investigation (Greenwire, June 25).
In a separate interview with E&E News — conducted before Merkley’s letter had been publicly released — the environmental activist who coordinated the operation to spike hundreds of trees in an Idaho national forest said Stone-Manning knew of the plan and had agreed weeks in advance to send the anonymous letter warning the Forest Service of the illegal deed.
But John Blount, one of two men convicted of spiking the trees, said Stone-Manning did not participate in the plan to outfit hundreds of trees at Clearwater National Forest with nails and metal spikes in an effort to stop a timber sale.
"She knew about it far in advance, a couple of months before we headed out," said Blount, the ringleader of the operation who was convicted of tree spiking in 1993 and sentenced to 17 months in prison.
"Was she heavily involved in the planning? Did she go put a nail in a tree or anything? Absolutely not," Blount added.
But, he said, "She had agreed to mail the letter well in advance" of the actual tree-spiking operation.
Only Stone-Manning didn’t follow the plan, he said.
"She was supposed to mail the letter from Billings where she had planned on going in two or three more days, so that it wasn’t postmarked ‘Missoula,’" Blount said. "That was the agreed-upon plan."
Instead, she mailed the letter on April 20, 1989, from Missoula, Mont., where she was a graduate student in environmental studies at the University of Montana.
The result is that the federal investigation into the tree-spiking case centered on Missoula and the University of Montana environmental studies program. A federal grand jury in Boise, Idaho, would later subpoena Stone-Manning and several other students, including Jeffrey Fairchild, who like Blount was later convicted of tree-spiking and sentenced to prison.
But Fairchild told The Washington Post this month that Stone-Manning was not involved with the event, other than retyping and mailing the warning letter.
"Other than the mailing of the letter, Tracy knew nothing and was not involved," Fairchild told the newspaper from his home in Tennessee. "She was a bridge builder. She was a moderating voice in every discussion. … She was always the one to say, ‘Hey, look, loggers have families, too.’"
A third man, Daniel LaCrosse, was arrested and charged with participating in the tree-spiking incident, but the charges were later dropped against him.
LaCrosse likewise recently defended Stone-Manning to The Washington Post, telling the newspaper that the then-graduate student argued against "destructive forms of activism."
"She strongly disagreed with doing any stupid stuff like that," LaCrosse said. "She was like, ‘Never. Don’t involve me.’"
"She was the voice of reason on all that," he added.
Stone-Manning, along with two other men who helped Blount, Fairchild and LaCrosse spike the trees, would later agree to testify against Blount and Fairchild in exchange for legal immunity.
Blount, 61, who describes himself as "a retired organic vegetable-growing hippie in Washington state," said he’s in poor health today. He said he has no animosity toward Stone-Manning or her decision to turn state’s evidence and help the Justice Department convict him.
"I had no problem with that," he said. "I testified against myself at jury trial. I demanded my rights at jury trial, I took the stand, and I told the truth. I was guilty. I did it."
In written responses to a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee questionnaire released yesterday, Stone-Manning reiterated the version of events she has long told, including in testimony during the criminal trial.
She also said, however, that she had been unsure of whether her acquaintances had even done as they claimed to the trees.
“Although they were boastful and convincing as they handed me the letter, I did not actually know if they had done what the letter described,” Stone-Manning wrote in the 57-page document. “At the time, I believed that I was notifying the authorities by sending the letter.”
Stone-Manning also said she didn’t remember speaking with Blount about the tree spiking. "I do not recall ever discussing tree spiking with Mr. Blount or participating in any activities with Earth First! with Mr. Blount," she wrote.
Barrasso, who has led the charge against Stone-Manning’s nomination, based almost entirely on the tree-spiking case, called on the White House today to withdraw her nomination.
"I am grateful to the lead investigator for providing the committee with all of the facts of the case," Barrasso said, referring to Merkely’s letter.
He added: "This new information confirms that Tracy Stone-Manning lied to the committee that she was never a target of an investigation. The nominee has no business leading the Bureau of Land Management. President Biden must withdraw her nomination and if he does not, the Senate must vote it down."
A Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee vote could come as early as next week, where Republicans will oppose her as a bloc: They all signed a letter yesterday calling on Biden to withdraw Stone-Manning’s nomination (E&E Daily, July 15).
A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said: "The Interior Department stands by Tracy’s statements and written submissions."
E&E News has reached out to Stone-Manning for comment.
Senate Democrats have steadfastly defended her, noting her extensive work over the past 25 years as director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, chief of staff for former Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and currently as a senior official with the National Wildlife Federation. Stone-Manning has earned public praise by Bullock and others for her ability to work with stakeholders from various sides of an issue to find solutions.
Over her career, Stone-Manning has been repeatedly asked about the tree-spiking case, which received extensive news coverage at the time, answering questions about it before her confirmation to lead Montana’s environmental agency.