Conflicting versions of tree-spiking case overshadow Stone-Manning nomination

By: - July 17, 2021 9:00 am

Differing accounts of a tree-spiking incident are escalating a confirmation battle for President Biden’s pick to lead the Bureau of Land Management. (Photo by Trevor Pye via Unsplash)

Tracy Stone-Manning and a former federal investigator during the past few days shared widely varying accounts of her involvement in a 1989 tree-spiking in an Idaho national forest, as the fight over the Montanan’s nomination to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management escalated.

Stone-Manning’s confirmation remains stuck in a divided U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, with no vote yet scheduled by Chairman Joe Manchin III. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have pounded away at the discrepancies in the narratives given by retired U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Michael Merkley and Stone-Manning about the tree-spiking.

The Biden administration maintained its support for Stone-Manning’s version of events, with Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz dismissing a damning letter from Merkley to the energy panel as a “work of fiction.”

“The Interior Department stands by Tracy’s statements and written submissions,” she added.

Tracy Stone-Manning, the president’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management

All accounts of the incident share one common set of facts: Stone-Manning mailed a letter to the Forest Service in 1989 threatening that loggers who attempted to cut down a portion of Clearwater National Forest could be hurt by spikes driven into them in an attempt to sabotage a sale—a federal crime.

Years later, in late 1992 or early 1993, investigators learned from Guenevere Lilburn, a former girlfriend of one of the convicted organizers of the tree-spiking, that Stone-Manning sent the letter.

Stone-Manning received immunity from prosecution in 1993 in return for her testimony against John Blount and Jeff Fairchild, who were both convicted of the spiking, considered an act of eco-terrorism because of its potential to maim or kill timber industry workers.

But Stone-Manning and Merkley diverge in other crucial details of the incident, especially her involvement in the planning of the tree-spiking and level of cooperation with the investigation.

A letter to the committee

Merkley sent a letter Wednesday to Manchin, (D-W.Va.), and the committee’s ranking Republican, John Barrasso of Wyoming, saying that Stone-Manning helped plan the sabotage, contradicting the narrative Stone-Manning has long maintained about the incident.

Stone-Manning only began cooperating with investigators in 1993 once she became a target of the investigation herself, at which point she hired an attorney who negotiated the immunity deal, Merkley wrote. During the initial investigation, “she was the nastiest of the suspects,” and refused to answer any questions, even though she knew who was responsible, he wrote.

Barrasso’s committee staff confirmed Merkley’s identity, including obtaining a photo of his Forest Service special agent badge.

But Stone-Manning has insisted that her sole involvement was to retype and mail the letter in 1989, repeating that contention in her response to 39 pages of questions asked by Barrasso. Stone-Manning, then a 23-year-old graduate student in the University of Montana’s environmental studies program, believed the letter would alert the proper authorities to the matter.

She only became aware of the tree-spiking when Blount handed her the letter and asked her to mail it, she wrote.

Even then, she wasn’t sure Blount and Fairchild had actually spiked the forest. She described being “disturbed by the whole situation and frightened by him.”

A 1993 phone call from the ex-girlfriend, Lilburn, describing Blount’s abuse of her, prompted Stone-Manning to tell authorities what she knew about his role in the tree-spiking. Lilburn was “sobbing” on the phone, Stone-Manning wrote, and told her Blount was in jail for domestic abuse.

Lilburn asked for Stone-Manning’s help to keep him imprisoned for longer by sharing what she knew about the tree-spiking, and Stone-Manning agreed, she wrote.

Various other people involved in some way with the incident have also given conflicting accounts recently that shed little light on the truth.

Blount said in an E&E News interview that Stone-Manning knew about the tree-spiking in advance but did not participate in the planning.

The Washington Post reported that Fairchild backed up Stone-Manning’s account that she was uninvolved except for mailing the letter.

Senate reacts

Senate Republicans have made Stone-Manning’s credibility central to their case against her confirmation. They contend she lied to the committee by saying she’d never been the target of an investigation.

They say that is false because Merkley wrote that she received a target letter, informing her she was a target of the investigation.

Yet the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, George Brietsmeter, told The Associated Press he doubted Stone-Manning received a letter informing her she was a target of the investigation.

Republicans say they believe Merkley and that Stone-Manning has lied to the U.S. Senate —which potentially could be a violation of the law.

“Tracy Stone-Manning’s story isn’t supported by the facts,” Barrasso said in a Friday statement. “The lead investigator’s detailed letter and numerous other accounts from the time make it clear that her sworn statements to the committee are just false. Lying to the U.S. Senate has consequences. In this case, the nomination should be rejected.”

Every Republican member of the Senate Energy Committee signed a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday asking him to withdraw Stone-Manning’s nomination, including one of Stone-Manning’s home-state senators, Republican Steve Daines.

In an appendix to that letter, Republicans pointed out that Stone-Manning’s account of feeling disturbed and frightened by Blount was at odds with her testimony at the 1993 trial that he and Fairchild were among her circle of friends.

Increasing the partisan divide on the nomination, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky added his voice this week to the GOP chorus opposing her. At one point, Senate Republicans featured three separate press releases on the Senate Energy website attacking Stone-Manning. House members like Colorado’s Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert have joined in on social media.

Senate Democrats have not appeared as organized or forceful in defending her.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has not addressed the battle over the nomination, which while not as high-profile as for a Cabinet post has still gained widespread attention among conservatives. A spokesman for the New York Democrat did not return messages seeking comment this week.

Manchin, often seen as the deciding vote in the 50-50 Senate, has not said how he will vote on the confirmation.

A White House official did offer a statement of support, calling Stone-Manning “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.”

Tester support

To the extent they have defended her, Democrats have focused more on her career in public life after graduation, than on the details of a 30-year-old crime and subsequent investigation.

Before taking a senior role in conservation policy with the National Wildlife Federation, Stone-Manning worked as a regional director for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, (D-Mont.), chief of staff to then-Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and director of Montana’s environmental quality department.

Tester, the sole Democrat in the three-member Montana congressional delegation, in a state former President Donald Trump won by 16 points, has stood firm even as the controversy has swirled.

“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 Thursday.

“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. I look forward to her confirmation.”

Correction: This story has been updated to say Blount told E&E News that Stone-Manning knew about the tree-spiking in advance but did not participate in the planning.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.