The debate over whether Tracy Stone-Manning should lead the Bureau of Land Management is starting to heat up.
Critics are continuing to raise questions about the nominee’s recently resurfaced past, including her ties to an environmental extremist group.
Those questions have drawn sharp rebukes from her advocates who are, in turn, accusing Republican senators of engaging in political retribution against Stone-Manning for campaigning against one of their own — Montana Sen. Steve Daines — in the 2020 election.
Yesterday, another attempt to chip away at Stone-Manning’s nomination came in an analysis from the American Accountability Foundation, a conservative research and fact-checking group that was launched earlier this year by two longtime GOP operatives.
Its report concludes that a large personal loan Stone-Manning received from a Montana developer in 2008, while working for Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), raises "serious questions" about whether the loan was an "impermissible gift" from a political donor.
AAF says the loan — between $50,000 and $100,000, according to a financial disclosure form required as part of the Senate confirmation process — makes little sense financially since Stone-Manning was making only about $59,000 a year at the time.
What’s more, the group contends, the personal loan from Stuart Goldberg, who had contributed to Tester’s campaign, was at a 6% interest rate — well below the standard rate of 11% in 2008. The difference in annual interest payments over the 12-year life of the loan would have saved Stone-Manning tens of thousands of dollars.
"The appearance alone of Mrs. Stone-Manning receiving a huge loan from a wealthy developer in her boss’ state raises serious questions that may disqualify her from service," said AAF co-founder Tom Jones in a statement.
The AAF analysis comes on the heels of recent reports that Stone-Manning was involved in a criminal case three decades ago in which she testified against two men who outfitted trees with metal spikes that were set to be logged inside the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho (E&E Daily, June 14).
That episode also highlighted Stone-Manning’s affiliation with the radical group Earth First. In 1989, as a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Montana, she sent a letter to federal officials — at the time anonymously and not composed by her — warning the planned logging operation should not proceed.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said last week that Stone-Manning’s past associations with the tree spikers and Earth First were enough to disqualify her from confirmation as BLM director.
"Tracy Stone-Manning collaborated with eco-terrorists," he said in an emailed statement. "She worked with extreme environmental activists who spiked trees, threatening the lives and livelihoods of loggers."
Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, retorted: "If Senator Barrasso is so worried about terrorism, he needs to clean up his own house first."
Referring to the Capitol riot in January, she continued, "Barrasso voted against a bipartisan investigation into the attempted coup of January 6th, but he thinks that someone who did the right thing three decades ago should be disqualified from a Senate-confirmable job."
Two government sources told E&E News that the Biden administration continues to back Stone-Manning’s nomination.
‘Raises new questions’
The latest questioning of Stone-Manning’s past comes after a confirmation hearing in which GOP senators described her as a "radical" and an "extremist."
To many of them, her recent role as a senior adviser for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation was proof she would promote a public lands policy at BLM that restricts multiple-use opportunities on federal lands — despite the several dozen hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation groups that have endorsed her nomination.
But Republicans also questioned whether Stone-Manning had a deep-seated dislike for them, with Barrasso focusing specifically on her targeting of Daines during his 2020 reelection contest against then-Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat for whom Stone-Manning worked in various senior capacities.
Stone-Manning has also been called out for her longtime membership of the board of Montana Conservation Voters, an organization that fought hard against Daines and in favor of Bullock throughout the campaign.
Daines, who ultimately held onto his seat, has been cautious not to be perceived as leading the opposition to Stone-Manning, particularly since he is a member of the committee that will vote on whether to advance her nomination in the coming weeks.
It was, for instance, not Daines who asked Stone-Manning about the terms of her loan during her Senate confirmation hearing but Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) (E&E Daily, June 9).
Following the hearing, where Stone-Manning referred to the loan as "help from a friend" during the 2008 recession, a Daines spokesperson said simply that the nominee "needs to answer questions" and "clarify whether she received favorable terms not available to the general public."
And it was Barrasso who raised attention to the tree-spiking incident, which was never broached during Stone-Manning’s confirmation hearing despite it having been a matter of public record in Montana for years.
"Senator Daines was made aware of the content in the letter Ms. Stone-Manning retyped and is alarmed by its hateful tone," Daines’ spokesperson said yesterday. "It raises new questions about her decision not to go straight to law enforcement."
The spokesperson was referring to the anonymous letter that one of the two tree-spikers directed Stone-Manning to send to the Forest Service. Stone-Manning years ago testified in the criminal case against the two men that she rented a typewriter and retyped the letter so as to avoid being identified.
It’s not clear yet how all these issues will play out in the coming weeks, to what extent they will gain traction and if they will cost her votes among Republicans — or more crucially, Democrats.
More light could be shed on the loan issue when Stone-Manning’s written responses to senators’ follow-up questions are submitted to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
But Marshall told E&E News last week that while he was concerned "she didn’t recognize the potential conflict of interest that she had, it’s obviously not a huge amount of money [and] it won’t be the deciding factor on whether I support her or not."
He also said he didn’t have firm plans for getting to the bottom of the source of the loan, conceding he "hadn’t really thought to the next step, or what is the next step."
And while the press office of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) did not respond to requests for comment, there is no indication that the latest developments have affected his stance on the nominee. Indeed, the accusations appear to be hardening Stone-Manning’s support among Democrats and traditional Democratic allies.
"It’s clear this entire bad-faith attack is nothing more than Daines and Barrasso holding a political grudge rather than doing the right thing for the people of Montana and the West, who deserve a leader like Tracy Stone-Manning at the Bureau of Land Management," Rokala said.
Tester is also doubling down in his support for his former aide.
"Tracy Stone-Manning is a dedicated public servant who has devoted her life to advocating for the public lands that drive our economy and serve as the backbone of Montana’s outdoor heritage," Tester said in a statement to E&E News yesterday.
"Tracy will bring Montana common sense to the Bureau of Land Management and serve as a collaborative, nonpartisan steward for our public lands, as well as the thousands of good-paying jobs that rely on them, and I look forward to her confirmation."