If you are Tracy Stone-Manning, a person who is passionate about public service and who has spent the past 20 years helping to solve some of the state’s most daunting environmental problems, there is no hesitation about what to do when Montana’s CEO calls and asks for help.
“When the governor asks, ‘Will you consider being director of environmental quality,’ my response is a deep and heartfelt yes,” Stone-Manning said late last week.
“I believe deeply in public service, and this position will let me take what I’ve learned in doing conservation work, take what I’ve learned at the federal level through Sen. Jon Tester’s office and apply it to the state.
“The Department of Environmental Quality has a beautiful mission: to protect, sustain and improve a clean and healthful environment to benefit present and future generations,” she said. “It’s a daunting mission and an incredible honor to be asked to do that.”
Having sold her home in Missoula and relocated into a newly purchased home in Helena, Stone-Manning is eager for the work ahead as director of DEQ.
Like all of Bullock’s appointees, Stone-Manning’s job will begin in earnest once the Montana Senate confirms Gov. Steve Bullock’s appointments as executive branch agency directors.
Committee chairs are working to schedule dates for confirmation hearings, which are expected to begin in early March, said Brock Lowrance, Senate majority communications director.
In advance of the hearings, each candidate for confirmation must complete an application with a uniform set of questions regarding things like work history and interest in the job.
However, after the review forms were sent out in January a question was added on Feb. 8, asking candidates if they ever have been charged with committing a crime.
The question is curious for several reasons, not only because it was added late in the process, but also because candidates have not been asked that before, said Kevin O’Brien, Bullock’s spokesperson.
In response, Lowrance explained that the process – including the criminal history question – is intended to better clarify how an individual will lead an agency.
“The purpose of the confirmation process is to learn about the candidates,” he said, “and to ensure legislators, and members of the public, have the opportunity to ask questions and address any concerns they might have.”
Although Lowrance would not specifically comment on any concern about Stone-Manning, she can’t help but wonder if the legal question is directed at her, and her unusual experience with a tree-spiking incident 24 years ago when she was a student in the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Department in 1989.
It’s an event that federal investigators and a court determined she was not involved with, and one in which she later became a material witness for federal authorities, helping to convict and send to prison the person responsible for the crime.
It’s a story she’s willingly shared before with reporters, in federal court, and with Bullock when she was offered the job as DEQ director.
It goes like this:
In the late 1980s, Tracy Stone-Manning was on her way to class at UM one day when a man named John Blount walked up to her and handed her a letter written to the U.S. Forest Service and asked her to mail it because he didn’t have a stamp.
Blount then explained the letter was notification to the agency that trees had been spiked in the Post Office timber sale on the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho.
“This guy wasn’t a student, he was just sort of hanging around and showing off,” Stone-Manning said. “I did not trust he would notify the Forest Service if the letter was not sent.
“But now my fingerprints were all over it. The easy thing to do would have been to burn that letter and walk away and not be associated with it, but that was the wrong thing to do because trees were spiked and somebody could be hurt when the loggers were sent in.
“So I mailed the letter.”
In the following months, Stone-Manning along with several UM students and environmental studies professor Ron Erickson, who later served in the Legislature, were part of the government’s grand jury investigation.
No charges were filed and Blount was known to have disappeared with a stolen shotgun, threatening anyone who would turn him in.
A few years later, in 1993, Blount’s common-law wife Guenevere Lilburn called Stone-Manning out of the blue, and explained Blount was in jail because he had severely beat her and stolen their child. Lilburn explained she was panicked because Blount would soon be released, and she wanted him to remain behind bars.
“She knew everything about the tree-spiking story and she knew if she told everything that could keep him in jail,” Stone-Manning said. “She asked if I would testify, and I said yes, and he went to jail.”
Needless to say, the incident was a formative experience, Stone-Manning said.
“What Blount did was incredibly stupid; the (Post Office) sale hadn’t even been appealed. There’s a process to voice concerns and he didn’t even do that – he went straight to an anger-based place.”
The incident, while unsettling, helped launch Stone-Manning’s communication style, one of trust-building and respect, and her consensus-driven approach to conservation and environmental challenges.
And she said it put into focus a deep truth: Change for the better happens based on fact-based discussions held by diverse people with diverse opinions working toward a solution.
“The more an issue becomes a community-wide issue, collaboration happens and it is more likely there will be success,” Stone-Manning said. “The more we approach conservation and environmental issues with the understanding that they are based in culture and our economy, the more they merge together, the better we will be for society.”
It’s a truth that played out over time and through her professional experience leading Missoula’s Five Valleys Land Trust, the Clark Fork Coalition and then working as Tester’s natural resources director.
“The wolf issue is a good example,” she said. “Delisting the wolf was the right thing to. When that issue came up, I was Tester’s natural resources director in the state.”
“Wolves were reintroduced with a plan in the 1990s, and we met recovery,” Stone-Manning said.
“The environmental community should have been popping champagne because it brought an animal back from the endangered species list, and the Endangered Species Act is a relatively new law, so it hasn’t had many success.
“The environmental community should have said job well done, let’s get on the next thing, but instead they sued, making it a political issue,” she said. “Now, because the environmental community sued, the backlash is so big many people are calling for wolves to not only be delisted but to be removed from endangered species purview period.”
Gov. Bullock said he is looking forward to watching Stone-Manning apply her skills at DEQ, and commented: “I know Tracy will work to make sure DEQ is doing right by everyone who values and prospers from Montana’s land and water.”
“Tracy is a proven consensus builder who is abundantly qualified to serve in this important post,” he said. “Whether it’s working to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, building a coalition to create jobs by restoring the Clark Fork or bringing the timber industry and wilderness advocates together to mandate forest restoration and timber harvest, Tracy has proven herself to be a highly qualified and talented leader.
“Tracy shares my belief that we can create jobs and build our rural economies through responsible development of coal, oil, gas, wind, hydro, biofuels and geothermal energy.”
Stone-Manning said her immediate job is to be mindful of how best to use her time now, when her perspective is new.
She will be looking closely at basic things, such as planning, what are the department’s goals and obstacles, what more can be done and how to do things better.
“One thing we don’t do is tell our story,” Stone-Manning said. “At DEQ we are known as regulators. Half the agency is in permitting and compliance.”
“We write permitting, we regulate industry and this is often frowned upon – yet it is an incredibly important job,” she said. “If the Legislature adopts laws, somebody has to implement those laws, and that’s what we do.
“We want to do it efficiently and fairly and with some level of predictability – and we do a lot of wonderful things for the state of Montana that regular folks don’t know about.”
For instance, the restoration of the Upper Clark Fork River will begin in coming months and toxic sediments will be removed from the floodplain.
“That’s an exciting story about putting the river back together – and a story worth telling,” Stone-Manning said.
One of the biggest stories – and challenges – DEQ is keeping an eye on revolves around the Otter Creek coal development on the Montana-Wyoming border.
“My job is make sure we get the science right, we get the law right, that the process is as transparent as possible, and we engage the public as much as possible,” Stone-Manning said. “It’s a large decision the state will make, and people should know why – and should feel they are part of that decision.”