WASHINGTON – He overhauled federal forest policy to cut more trees — and became a lightning rod for environmentalists who say he is intent on logging every tree in his reach.
After nearly seven years in office, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey still has a long to-do list. Near the top: Persuade a federal judge to keep him out of jail.
Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist who has directed U.S. forest policy since 2001, also wants to set up state rules making it easier to build roads in remote national forests and restore overgrown, unhealthy forests by clearing them of small trees and debris that can stoke wildfires. And he wants to streamline cumbersome regulations that can paralyze actions on public lands.
A Montana judge, accusing Rey of deliberately skirting the law so the Forest Service can keep fighting wildfires with a flame retardant that kills fish, has threatened to put him behind bars.
For Rey, who faces a court date Tuesday, the prospect of jail time is daunting. But it’s just one more obstacle as he attempts to rid federal policies of pesky paperwork and endless litigation that slows forest managers from cutting down trees.
Rey’s signature accomplishment — passage of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act — quickened approval of projects to thin overgrown forests, so they can be completed within months rather than years. The law, the first major change in forest management in a quarter-century, has helped restore healthy forests after decades of neglect and mismanagement, supporters say.
“We are now treating four times as many acres as we did when this administration came into office,” Rey said in an interview, “and those treatments are showing the desired effect.”
Devastating wildfires in California last fall that charred about 800 square miles and killed 10 people, burned about 2,200 homes — half the number of homes destroyed in similar fires in 2003, Rey said.
Rey’s critics say talk of “treatment” and “thinning” is code for Rey’s real goal: cutting more trees in service of his former timber industry cronies.
Environmentalists routinely denounce Rey as the “Karl Rove of the forest”: a Machiavellian figure who serves as the brains behind the Bush administration’s aggressive effort to reverse Clinton administration policies that sought to rope off broad swaths of forest land for preservation. One group even declared Rey “Public Lands Enemy No. 1” after he proposed a failed plan to sell surplus forest land to private interests.
“He’s tried to oversee a radical dismantling of the safeguards that the public really wants for its public lands,” said Doug Heiken, conservation coordinator for Oregon Wild, an environmental group.
The object of such fury is unlikely. At 55, the short, bespectacled Rey looks more like a high-school math teacher than a ruthless tree killer. With a salt-and-paper goatee, the soft-spoken Rey has a dry wit that masks his determination to remake forest policy.
“I’m not sure forests need Karl Rove,” Rey said, laughing.
Josh Kardon, chief of staff to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Rey revels in his notoriety.
“Mark has always enjoyed a good joust and likes reliving those battles while he sips wine and strokes that legendary goatee,” Kardon said.
Born in Canton, Ohio, Rey became interested in forests as an Eagle Scout. He later earned degrees at the University of Michigan in forestry, wildlife biology and natural resources policy.
After a stint at the Bureau of Land Management, he began working for the timber and paper industry in 1976 and was vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association before joining the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 1995.
As lead forestry staffer for the panel’s two top Republicans, Idaho’s Larry Craig and Alaska’s Frank Murkowski, Rey was a key figure in a number of controversial bills, including one to hasten so-called salvage logging after forest fires.
Craig, who pushed for Rey’s appointment, said Rey knows more about forest management than anyone else in Washington.
“He will be viewed, I think, as one of the more successful undersecretaries,” Craig said, citing the healthy forests law and increased focus on the cause and suppression of wildfires.
Chris West, vice president of American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, gives Rey’s tenure a B-minus. “Mostly because they didn’t get as much done as they could have and should have” with a Republican administration and GOP Congress for six years, West said.
Rey acknowledges the point, but he said budget constraints in a time of war have limited his options.
His biggest regret? “I didn’t get to be undersecretary for natural resources during a time of budget surpluses and above-average rainfall,” Rey said. “There’s nothing I can do about either.”
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