BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — President Joe Biden's nominee to oversee vast expanses of U.S. public lands was criticized Tuesday by Republicans over her past involvement in partisan politics as a longtime Democratic aide and environmentalist, underscoring the importance lawmakers assign to a relatively small agency with broad influence over energy development and agriculture in western states.
Senate confirmation of Tracy Stone-Manning to direct the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would mark a stark change from the government's catering to oil and gas interests under former President Donald Trump.
It would take every Senate Republican plus at least one Democratic lawmaker to block her nomination. So far no Democratic defectors have emerged.
The land bureau has been in staffing turmoil after four years without a confirmed director and losing nearly 300 employees to retirement or resignation when its headquarters was relocated from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado.
Interior Department officials confirmed Tuesday that only three workers ultimately relocated to Grand Junction. The revelation, first reported by the media outlet Colorado Newsline, marks the latest example of the heavy toll on the federal workforce from a broad reorganization of government under Trump, which left agencies hobbled as they regulated industry and conducted climate research.
With roughly 9,000 employees, the land bureau has jurisdiction over 245 million acres (100 million hectares) of federally owned land in Western states, managing them for uses ranging from fossil fuel extraction, renewable power development and grazing, to recreation and wilderness.
Before joining the National Wildlife Federation four years ago, Stone-Manning worked as chief of staff to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and supported him through his failed attempt to unseat Montana Sen. Steve Daines.
During a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Republicans lambasted her role as treasurer and board member of the environmental group Montana Conservation Voters, which ran ads against Daines. The Republicans also raised concerns she would impede energy development.
“You've been incredibly partisan in your past,” said Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. “It seems like from your heart, you really don't care for Republicans.”
Stone-Manning, from Missoula, Montana, said her deceased Republican parents would be “rolling in their graves” over the allegation of partisanship. She indicated she wanted to move on from the 2020 election and said working in a collaborative manner was the only way to make progress in the West’s contentious public lands debates.
“Elections can be tough. I was supporting my former boss, Gov. Bullock. But the election is over, and I will honor the outcome of that election,” she said.
Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper asked Stone-Manning about the headquarters relocation, saying the move was “done in haste” and let down employees of the land bureau and the city of Grand Junction, which hoped for an economic boost.
Stone-Manning said the Interior Department was reviewing the headquarters move but gave no further details.
The director's post and 327 other positions were moved out of Washington under Trump, to Grand Junction and other western cities, bureau spokesperson Jeff Krauss said. The upheaval triggered the resignation or retirement of 278 people.
Of 41 positions created at the new Colorado headquarters, 11 career positions and two political positions including the director's office remain vacant, Krauss said.
Interior officials were unable to immediately say how many positions at the Grand Junction office remain unfilled.
At the National Wildlife Federation Stone-Manning led the group's efforts to preserve public lands in the West for wildlife, hiking, hunting and other nonindustrial uses.
She was previously an aide to Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and worked for a nonprofit group that pushed the clean up one of the country’s largest contaminated Superfund sites, Montana’s Clark Fork River.
Tester introduced Stone-Manning at Tuesday's hearing and rejected the GOP description of her as an ideologue.
“She is a good person with a good heart who understands the value of our public lands,” Tester said.
Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall questioned Stone-Manning on whether she had a conflict of interest in receiving a personal loan of $50,000 to $100,000 in 2008 while working on Tester's staff. Financial disclosure filings showed she received the 12-year loan from Missoula developer Stuart Goldberg at a 6% interest rate, which Marshall said was below the 11 % going rate for consumer loans at that time.
Stone-Manning responded that she had been “smacked by the recession and a friend loaned us some money to make sure we could get through.”
“We honored the loan,” she added.
The land management bureau’s director post went unfilled for four years under Trump, who instead relied on a string of acting directors to execute a loosening of restrictions on industry. Chief among them was conservative lawyer William Perry Pendley, who before he took the position advocated for selling off federal lands.
Pendley was ordered removed by a federal judge after leading the bureau for more than year without required Senate confirmation and getting sued by Bullock.
Stone-Manning backed the effort to oust Pendley and said he was an illegal appointee.
She would serve under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico who was confirmed over opposition from Republicans citing her criticisms of the oil and gas industry.