Bush has 'irascible' guide for thicket of forest policy - Mark Rey works to roll back regulations

By Katherine Pfleger
Seattle Times Washington bureau


WASHINGTON To introduce himself to the Forest Service's leadership team, the new Agriculture Department undersecretary listed the top 10 quirks everyone should know about him.
No. 2 left some unnerved.

"Perhaps you have heard the old Sicilian phrase, 'Revenge is a dish best served cold,' " Mark Rey said to a hotel ballroom of staffers and senior managers. "Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try to avoid it, this is part of my personal genome. I humbly request that you try to avoid encouraging that shortcoming."

A year later, Rey smiles behind his salt-and-pepper goatee.

"I was hoping that if I let them know that I am an irascible, cantankerous, generally unpleasant fellow to deal with, they'd minimize the times they brought me bad news," he said.

Mark Rey at a glance

Title: Agriculture Department undersecretary for natural resources and the environment. Sworn in October 2001.
Personal: 50, married with two teenage children.

Job description: Oversees the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversee a combined 350 million acres of public and private lands.

Career path: GOP staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources public lands and forests subcommittee, 1995-2001; various positions with a leading forest and paper trade group, the American Forest & Paper Association (which underwent several name changes during his tenure), 1976-1994; Bureau of Land Management staff assistant in Billings, Mont., and Washington, D.C., 1974-75.

It didn't work, but that's often Rey's own doing.

Since Rey assumed his post in October 2001, battles over cutting trees have again landed on the front page. He has emerged as the brains behind the Bush administration's aggressive effort to redirect the course set by the Clinton administration, which sought to rope off broad swaths for preservation.

Rey's background as a timber-industry lobbyist, and his personality calculating to the point of controlling have environmentalists concerned that more than 20 years of hard-won forest protections will be undermined.

In the Northwest, home of the spotted-owl ruling and some of the nation's most legendary environmental battles, Rey is being watched by anyone with an interest in forests from tree sitters to mill owners to see if he keeps the administration's promise to limit government regulation. In these changes, environmentalists see rollbacks.

No one knows what to expect.

With the political attention in Washington, D.C., riveted on war, the nation's forests seem low on the list of priorities. That could change by the fire season; last year's grabbed the country's attention when 7.1 million acres burned.

After those fires, Rey and the Bush administration tried to push through bills streamlining environmental reviews on public lands. When their legislative attempt failed, they turned to regulatory changes that don't require congressional approval. Some are nearing completion.

Rey says he wants to reduce time-consuming paper pushing to restore overgrown, unhealthy forests. He has worked to alter forest policies including a rule that bans most logging and road-building in undeveloped stretches of federal forests and guidelines that determine how the agency's 191 million acres can be used.

With such efforts under way, Rey has become a caricature for environmentalists, who compare him to Satan and Darth Vader.

"He's charming," said Jim Furnish, a Clinton administration forestry official and now a consultant for organizations including the Wilderness Society. But "I think he files his teeth in the morning."

Rey chalks the complaints up to the nature of advocacy. And he doesn't take them personally.

From Democrat to Republican

Rey could have ended up on the other side of the debate.

From Canton, Ohio, a state with just one national forest, Rey studied forestry and wildlife biology at the University of Michigan. A registered Democrat in 1973, he interviewed with the Wilderness Society but didn't get the job. Instead, he spent parts of two years as a staff assistant with the Bureau of Land Management.

By 1980 he was a timber-industry lobbyist and an independent who cast his ballot for Ronald Reagan. A few years later, the son of two Democrats became a registered Republican primarily because of his beliefs in national defense and effective government.

In 1995 he began working on forest-resource issues for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and former Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Today, Rey, 50, is considered one of the most conservative voices on environmental policy in the Bush administration.

As undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, his reach extends beyond the Forest Service to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which helps farmers protect their land and water. In total, Rey can effect change on roughly 350 million acres of public and private lands, an area more than eight times the size of Washington state.

But the changes in forest management the issue that helped shape today's environmental community have caused the most controversy.

There from the beginning

Rey believes that for hundreds of years people have had a strong hand in shaping forests and shouldn't give up managing them now: Overly dense stands should be thinned; let experts, not natural forces, decide which trees should come down to avoid big fires.

But environmental groups are suspicious of timber sales made in the name of "forest health."

Rey has a deep history in the fight, having lobbied for a national paper and timber association during much of the extensive timber harvests of the 1970s and 1980s. He continued to make a name as an advocate for timber interests in the battles over protections for the northern spotted owl. In 1994 the struggle led to the dramatic reduction of federal timber available in the Northwest.

A decade later, loggers and others in the timber industry remain unhappy with the resulting Northwest Forest Plan, which protected 24.5 million acres of the owl's range in Washington, Oregon and California.

The timber industry was promised 1.1 billion board feet of timber annually from affected federal forests, including some old growth. But in recent years the harvest has been only a fraction of that.

The industry blames lawsuits and a plan it says was designed to fail. Environmentalists say the industry is choosing the wrong trees. Rey wants to meet the timber commitments and end the standoff.

Heart of the debate

Rey says the fight between the timber industry and environmentalists conforms to a principle he's observed: Interest groups eventually realize they are not going to achieve their entire agenda. And time hurts their goals.

Then they come to the table.

But as Rey moves ahead with revisions to Clinton forest policies, many environmentalists say they aren't included.

In the name of streamlining bureaucracy, for instance, the Forest Service in December released a set of proposed zoning rules that help delineate acres for logging, recreation, environmental preservation and other uses significantly altering a Clinton-era rule that put ecological values above other criteria when determining the destiny of a forest.

In the Bush administration policy, the uses of national forests recreation, logging, mining, preservation are to receive more consideration.

The administration also has been revising Clinton's roadless rules, which banned most logging and road-building on nearly a third of national-forest lands.

And the administration's Healthy Forests Initiative, designed to reduce wildfire risks in federal forests, would exempt many forest-thinning projects from the most rigorous and time-consuming environmental reviews.

Josh Kardon, chief of staff to Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, believes Rey's marching orders are to help the timber and energy industries in ways too complex for the public to understand.

"The Clinton administration lost credibility because they put virtually all of their efforts into the preservation side of the equation and virtually nothing into helping rural communities sustainably manage public lands," said Kardon, whose boss is the top Democrat on a Senate public lands and forests subcommittee.

"The Bush administration is making almost the very same mistakes from 180 degrees of where the Clinton administration was."

His door is open

Rey says his critics have his motivations all wrong.

First, he insists reversing Clinton's policies is not his goal: "I don't accept what we are doing as progressive or regressive because I don't accept a linear view of history."

As a civil servant, he says, his job is to find solutions. Environmentalists have to work with timber companies, who have to work with locals, who have to work with politicians.

And he rejects the charge that he hasn't divorced himself from the timber industry: "Usually they piss me off enough. It's not hard." Instead, Rey says he's most concerned about addressing the years of management mistakes that he says left forests susceptible to catastrophic wildfires. While he's under no illusion the forests will be cured soon, he says the fixes have to start somewhere.

"You have lands that are being consumed by ever-increasing wildfires every summer, and whatever else you believe, you can't believe that is good," he said.

His opposition thinks he's hard-wired to help industry extract wood and minerals from federal lands. Rey, however, likes to note that he's always ready to listen.

And, it seems his opponents can be just as uncompromising as they say he is.

Take an hourlong session Rey had last year with the National Forest Protection Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups who came to his office to discuss endangered species and ancient trees.

After the meeting, about four dozen protesters from those same groups staged a preplanned march on the Agriculture Department.

Rey watched from a window. "The problem with a zealot is that he mistakes your agreement to listen with your agreement to the proposition that he is offering."

What's in store for forests?

Western Republicans, and even some Democrats, have an appetite to address the forest-health problem since the record-breaking wildfires. So does Rey.

Wildfire bills last year drew the Senate into weeks of debate that failed to resolve how to implement the president's Healthy Forests Initiative. This year, only one facet of the plan has moved. Last month, Congress blessed a controversial program to turn management of some public forests over to private contractors and nonprofit groups.

Rey says additional legislation is in the works, and many expect him to play a significant role.

In fact, at least one of Rey's friends has diagnosed him with "Congressional Staffer Syndrome," a tongue-in-cheek disorder among current and ex-Capitol Hill aides. Rey has his hands in issues that could be left to lower-level managers from the details of wildfire policy to a federal land transfer involving a public school.

Chris Wood, a former Clinton forestry adviser now with Trout Unlimited, counts Rey as a friend despite political differences.

He says Rey's calculating mind and love of the political game could make him go too far.

"Mark is a good person, in a very difficult and demanding job, who makes life harder than it needs to be by being too much of a smarty-pants," Wood said.

He points to the salvage-logging rider of 1995, which Rey helped orchestrate. The provision, attached to a spending bill, temporarily suspended environmental laws to expedite harvest of dead and dying trees.

Environmentalists complained "dying" was so broadly interpreted that healthy trees also were cut.

Rey was a primary driver of the legislation, and environmentalists say they won't forget. But the industry stands by him.

"Hindsight is always perfect," said W. Henson Moore, the head of the American Forest & Paper Association, where Rey once worked. "I don't know of anything where I think he went too far."

Some wish, however, Rey were further along in reducing the legal and regulatory gridlock blocking projects and timber sales.

"The bottom line is that, despite all the rhetoric, the administration hasn't finalized any of the modernization of its rules and regulations," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland.

During eight years of the Clinton presidency, Rey doled out the criticism. Being on the receiving end has been a big adjustment.

"Here, I've got to catch the hand grenades," Rey laughs.

Katherine Pfleger: 206-464-2772 or kpfleger@seattletimes.com


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