By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009
LOS ANGELES -- The Bush administration appears poised to push through a change in U.S. Forest Service agreements that would make it far easier for mountain forests to be converted to housing subdivisions.
Mark E. Rey, the former timber lobbyist who heads the Forest Service, last week signaled his intent to formalize the controversial change before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. As a candidate, Obama campaigned against the measure in Montana, where local governments complained of being blindsided by Rey's negotiating the policy shift behind closed doors with the nation's largest private landowner.
The shift is technical but with large implications. It would allow Plum Creek Timber to pave roads passing through Forest Service land. For decades, such roads were little more than trails used by logging trucks to reach timber stands.
But as Plum Creek has moved into the real estate business, paving those roads became a necessary prelude to opening vast tracts of the company's 8 million acres to the vacation homes that are transforming landscapes across the West.
Scenic western Montana, where Plum Creek owns 1.2 million acres, would be most affected, placing fresh burdens on county governments to provide services, and undoing efforts to cluster housing near towns.
"Just within the last couple weeks, they finalized a big subdivision west of Kalispell," said D. James McCubbin, deputy county attorney of Missoula County, which complained that the closed-door negotiations violated federal laws requiring public comment because the changes would affect endangered species and sensitive ecosystems. Kalispell is in Flathead County, where officials also protested.
The uproar last summer forced Rey to postpone finalizing the change, which came after "considerable internal disagreement" within the Forest Service, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report requested by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). The report said that 900 miles of logging roads could be paved in Montana and that amending the long-held easements "could have a nationwide impact."
Tester and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, then asked for an inquiry by the inspector general of the Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service.
"I think we need another set of eyes on it," Tester said Friday. "I don't think that's running out the clock. If this is a good agreement, then what's the rush? Why do it in the eleventh hour of this administration?"
Probably because the proposal would die after Jan. 20. Obama sharply criticized Rey's efforts during the presidential campaign, seizing on concerns that a landscape dotted with luxury homes will be less hospitable to Montanans accustomed to easy access to timberlands.
"At a time when Montana's sportsmen are finding it increasingly hard to access lands, it is outrageous that the Bush administration would exacerbate the problem by encouraging prime hunting and fishing lands to be carved up and closed off," Obama said.
Rey vows to act soon. In a Dec. 12 letter to Tester and Bingaman, he repeated his logic for granting Plum Creek the changes it requested, then closed with a promise to schedule briefings "to describe how we plan to proceed.''
In a phone interview Wednesday, Rey said he will act immediately after the courtesy meetings with the lawmakers. "Probably in the next week or so, before this goes forward," he said. Tester said he has not yet heard from Rey's office to arrange a meeting.
On environmental questions, the Bush administration has a checkered record of following through on promised eleventh-hour changes, said Robert Dreher, a lawyer with Defenders of Wildlife.
"I suppose it's a legacy issue," Dreher said. "They've already backed off on a couple of things they said they were going to do," including proposed changes on marine fisheries and industrial emissions.
On the other hand, the Bush White House went ahead with controversial changes to the Endangered Species Act, despite opposition from environmentalists.
The Plum Creek deal could be accomplished with the stroke of a pen. Because it amends existing easements, the change involves no 30-day waiting period. But the step carries a political cost that the administration evidently has been assessing since June, when Rey said he expected to formalize within a month the change that half a year later is still hanging fire.
"It's conceivable they don't want to leave office looking like bad guys," Dreher said. "There's been a lot of concern about the nature of the process and the lack of inclusiveness. You've got the county government in Montana angry over it. If they do this walking out the door, they're kind of ramming it down their throats."