Republicans on the U.S. Senate Energy Committee on Tuesday grilled public lands nominee Tracy Stone-Manning of Montana about her past opposition to an “energy dominance” agenda, as well as her 2020 support for the Democratic challenger to a GOP senator from her home state who sits on the committee.
The sometimes rancorous hearing previewed a likely tight confirmation vote for Stone-Manning, who is President Joe Biden’s selection to lead the Bureau of Land Management, in a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has voted with Democrats in the past, expressed concerns about the nomination.
Stone-Manning, a senior adviser with the National Wildlife Federation who served as chief of staff to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, told the panel she would work with the agency’s diverse interests and touted her past work building coalitions of industry, environmentalists and local officials. Democrats expressed their belief she would work as a unifier if confirmed as BLM director.
She pledged to follow the laws set by Congress that mandate BLM land be used for conservation, recreation and energy development.
But the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, laid out several objections to Stone-Manning in his opening statement. She has spent her career opposing energy development on public lands, he said, which was contrary to the agency’s multiple-use mission that includes energy development as well as conservation and recreation.
“The Bureau of Land Management needs a director who believes in, and is committed to, upholding the agency’s multiple-use mandate,” Barrasso said. “Based on her record, I am concerned that Ms. Stone-Manning does not fit the bill.”
Barrasso and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, took exception to what Barrasso described as Stone-Manning’s “unvarnished political partisanship.”
She supported her former boss, Bullock, last year in his challenge to incumbent Sen. Steve Daines, they pointed out. Daines is a member of the committee.
In addition, Stone-Manning in February tweeted a link to an op-ed—authored by the Billings Gazette editorial board—that suggested Republicans opposed Deb Haaland’s nomination as Interior secretary because she is a Native American woman.
Immediately after Barrasso’s statement slamming Stone-Manning, Sen. Jon Tester, for whom Stone-Manning worked from 2007 to 2012, introduced her to the committee as someone with “uncommon common sense.”
After finishing his complimentary prepared remarks that described Stone-Manning’s work with environmentalists, loggers, local officials and others to promote conservation causes, Tester looked up from written notes and directly addressed Barrasso.
“With all due respect to the ranking member, the point that you brought up with respect to multiple use did not describe the person I just talked about,” he said, adding that Stone-Manning was a consensus-builder who well understood the BLM’s multiple-use agenda.
“She is someone who believes in multiple use and appropriate use. I would not be here today introducing her if I thought she was the person you described, Sen. Barrasso.”
Republicans spent much of the hearing tying Stone-Manning to the positions of the Montana Conservation Voters, an advocacy group for which Stone-Manning was a volunteer board member and treasurer, rather than her work for the National Wildlife Federation.
Montana Conservation Voters ran ads opposing Daines in his 2020 re-election bid, even after other environmental groups praised him for his work on a bill to provide funding for federal public lands programs.
Barrasso called the campaign “a smear” and said Daines deserved credit for his work on the bill. Barrasso voted against the measure, which passed 73-25 last year before former President Donald Trump signed it into law.
Stone-Manning said board members sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed with their organizations and encouraged the senators to review her work at her “day job” at the National Wildlife Federation, and her career working in a “bipartisan landscape.”
“I think my career has shown that the only way to get things done in the country, and specifically in the West, is to work together,” she said. “I have a demonstrated track record of doing that. Elections can be tough. I was supporting my former boss, Gov. Bullock, but the election is over, and I will honor the outcome.”
Daines didn’t bring up Stone-Manning’s position on his Senate race, but did try to paint her as ideologically extreme, asking about the nominee’s opposition to the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline and a previous comment that Rock Creek Mine in Montana was “philosophically abhorrent.”
The chances Stone-Manning’s confirmation may have for a bipartisan vote seemed to take a hit when one of the few swing-vote Republicans, Murkowski of Alaska, said the National Wildlife Federation’s work opposing oil and gas leases in Murkowski’s state caused her “deep concern” about confirming Stone-Manning.
Stone-Manning said she understood the post of BLM director is a different job than her advocacy work, and she would follow the law if confirmed.
Another potential swing vote is that of Committee Chairman Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who sometimes votes with Republicans. Manchin, who has not yet stated a position on the nomination, asked a series of questions about U.S. energy production.
Stone-Manning answered that fossil fuels would be a major part of U.S. energy for years and that a proper balance can be struck between energy development and environmental protection.
Agency in turmoil
If confirmed, Stone-Manning would take over an agency that saw an unusually tumultuous time during the Trump administration.
The BLM never had a Senate-confirmed director under Trump, leaving the decisions approved by acting director William Perry Pendley in a legally questionable position.
Republicans’ doubts about Stone-Manning’s commitment to the multiple-use mission echoed Democrats’ concerns about the Trump-era “energy dominance agenda” at the agency and the rest of the Interior Department.
Environmental activists and Democrats found Pendley, a former legal activist who questioned the very concept of the federal government holding public lands, too extreme for an agency that is supposed to balance interests on the 245 million acres of federal lands across the country.
Instead, Pendley’s critics said, he was too focused on the interests of the oil and gas and other extractive industries to the exclusion of conservation and recreation.
Expanding conservation work has been a major plank of Biden’s Interior platform. Before taking office, Biden listed climate change as among the four major crises he planned to address.
In addition to the tumult in leadership, the agency also saw a rare relocation during Trump’s term, moving to Grand Junction, Colo. from Washington. Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said that the move allowed the BLM to be closer to the lands the agency manages and the people with whom it most often interacts, as nearly all BLM lands are in the West.
But conservation activists—including Stone-Manning in her National Wildlife Federation role—and most elected Democrats outside of Colorado opposed the move, noting that most BLM staff was already stationed throughout the West and that the agency needed a policymaking team in the nation’s capital or risk losing influence with the executive branch and Congress.
Many who opposed the move have asked Biden and Haaland to move the BLM headquarters back to Washington.
U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, asked Stone-Manning on Tuesday to keep in mind the 41 people who work at the Grand Junction location. A BLM spokesperson told Colorado Newsline this week that only three workers made the move to the new headquarters.
Stone-Manning was noncommittal Tuesday about the future location of the bureau’s headquarters, saying that the Interior Department leadership was reviewing the decision.