Chainsaw Politics


One thing you gotta say for the Great Satan: He really loves his work.

In his cluttered command post at the Department of Agriculture, overlooking the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., Mark Rey -- Old Scratch himself, in the minds of many tree huggers -- is reviewing his first 13 months as steward of America's forests.

He's been incredibly busy.

"Every time there's a change in administrations, you're going to see a change in policy," says Rey, explaining a slew of regulatory actions that have the greens breaking out bells, books, and candles -- and fighting among themselves. "That's what elections, after all, are about."

At 50, this bespectacled former Eagle Scout and Cub Scout den leader is as reviled as any man in the enviros' pantheon of demons since the troubled reign of James Gaius Watt, Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior.

Not surprisingly, Rey, a consummate inside-the-Beltway player, is among the most respected officials in Republican-dominated Washington.

"Mark is one of the most intelligent, articulate, and experienced people I have ever had a chance to work with," Rey's former boss, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, has said.

"He is without question . . . the most knowledgeable person I have ever met on the U.S. Forest Service," concurs Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

"Mark is the high priest of stump worship. He never met a tree he wouldn't cut," counters Bill Arthur, director of the Sierra Club's Northwest office in Seattle. "The timber executives ponied up a million dollars for Bush's election campaign, and Mark Rey intends to make sure their investment is richly rewarded."

The nation's pre-eminent timber lobbyist in the 1980s and early 1990s, Rey received the grudging admiration of his opponents -- the kind of deference accorded a worthy, if wily, adversary. As a Senate Republican staffer and putative author of the infamous Salvage Logging Rider of 1995, which rekindled the Northwest's bitter timber wars, he became despised.

Now, as U.S. undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, responsible for 45,000 government employees and 191 million acres of public forests and grasslands, Rey is truly feared. So feared, in fact, that some Northwest environmentalists, as we'll see later, have been cutting their losses by trying to cut a deal with the devil. By agreeing to support thinning of younger trees, they hope to preserve the little remaining old growth -- the ancient forests the Northwest is famous for. Not everyone in the green community thinks the swap is a good idea, and the debate has become acrimonious.


From a green perspective, the terror over the rule of Rey is not without foundation. On Inauguration Day 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush embarked on a methodical, far-reaching agenda of policy changes and out-of-court settlements, attempting to roll back or rewrite conservation measures dating to the Nixon administration.

"Clearly this administration has a pro-business, anti-environment point of view, from the chief executive on down. And they set the tone. It's unfortunate," says Mike Dombeck, U.S. Forest Service chief under President Bill Clinton.

"Every acre of old-growth forest we lose is one that we're not going to see again for several generations. The question is, is this worth it over the long haul, when we look at forests not in election cycles but in decades and even centuries? I just think we're stepping back to the 1970s."

In fairness to Rey, much of this "anti- environment" stuff started months before he joined Team Bush, and much is officially outside his portfolio. But even more than his colleagues, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and Attorney General John Ashcroft, Rey has become a lightning rod for green disdain.

On their short list of great wrongs, conservationists say the administration:

  • Delayed adoption of the much-proclaimed Roadless Area Conservation Rule, Clinton's attempt to protect 58.5 million forest acres, or about one-third of the national forest system's total area. Then, in a bit of legal deviltry, enviros allege, Ashcroft's Department of Justice shirked its responsibility to defend the rule in court against a timber-industry challenge.
  • Introduced the Healthy Forest Initiative, seeking to increase logging in the name of fire control, while exempting some forest planning from review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Part of the initiative, apparently unrelated to fire control, would increase logging in old-growth forests of the Northwest.
  • Settled another timber-industry lawsuit behind closed doors following a feckless legal performance by the Justice Department. When the sawdust cleared, the administration had agreed to abolish a key requirement of the Northwest Forest Plan, the brittle armistice credited with bringing a degree of peace to Western forests for the past eight years.
  • Put up a really feeble "sue-and-settle" defense to another industry lawsuit, resulting in the abandonment of critical habitat designations for 19 species of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead, including Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal summer chum, and Lake Ozette sockeye.
  • Is revising regulations under the National Forest Management Act, effectively reducing protection for wildlife, avoiding compliance with key environmental laws, and taking much of the science out of forest management.

"I'm interested in trying to make some changes that are going to be lasting and meaningful," says Rey, in his characteristic soft, precise monotone. Those changes, he adds, will require bipartisan support on Capitol Hill -- support that appears to be building. "Most notably," says the undersecretary, "Congress hasn't passed legislation to strike anything down that we've tried to do. So -- using the converse of support as an indication of at least some degree of agreement -- I guess we're doing pretty well there."

Depending on whether you liked the direction environmental protection was headed under Clinton, things could get much worse.

Fearing "another sweetheart deal between the Bush administration and the timber industry," nine environmental groups intervened in July against a pair of forest-products-industry lawsuits that could shiver the very timbers of conservation law.

A decade ago, northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act -- important listings that helped bring logging on federal forests to a virtual standstill.

The Clinton-brokered Northwest Forest Plan allowed logging to resume by providing what a federal judge called the "bare minimum" required to ensure the survival of owls, murrelets, and other wildlife. In last summer's lawsuits, the timber industry challenged the protected status of the owls and murrelets and the habitat designated under the Endangered Species Act as necessary to keep the birds alive.

If the new lawsuits are successful, the Northwest Forest Plan itself, not to mention the critters, could be headed for the tepee burner. And that would be bad news for the owl. As Seattle Weekly has reported, northern spotted owl populations appear to have dropped significantly over the past decade, with local declines ranging anywhere from 12 percent to 53 percent.

Citing the government's apparent unwillingness to defend against other industry lawsuits, Kristen Boyles, an attorney at the Seattle office of Earthjustice, a national environmental-law firm, says citizen groups have been forced to play the role usually reserved for the Justice Department. "It's been a pattern of sue-and-settle between the Bush administration and industry," says Boyles. "We need to be in these lawsuits to speak for the owls, murrelets, and people of the Northwest. The Bush administration has made it clear it won't."

"There is clearly a coordinated effort by this administration to do away with environmental protections on national forests," says Mike Leahy, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, across town from Rey's office in Washington.

Last month, the Defenders filed a lawsuit of their own, seeking to force the Forest Service and its parent agency, the Department of Agriculture, to turn over records of contacts between officials, including Rey, and the timber industry.

Prompting the lawsuit was a leaked agency draft of new regulations being considered for national forest planning. At least eight of the draft regulations, Leahy says, are identical to items on a wish list presented two years ago in testimony before a Senate committee by the American Forest and Paper Association, Rey's former employer.

The Defenders say the draft regulations make a mockery of the planning process for each of the 175 national forests and grasslands under Rey's jurisdiction by exempting not only individual timber sales but entire forest plans from scientific review.

"The overall intent is obviously to make forest plans essentially irrelevant, giving local forest officials free rein to manage public forests however they wish," says Leahy. "It's the old 'trust me, I'm from the Forest Service' approach that brought us the endless clear-cuts the agency is famous for.

"Protections, processes, and guidelines for managing national forests were put in place for a reason -- because the timber industry and the Forest Service were hammering the hell out of the public's forests. Rather than embracing the progress in forest management over the last two decades, however, the Bush administration wants to throw out everything we've learned about how to better manage forests and return us to the old days when logging was king."


All of this name calling -- this Lucifer of Lumber stuff, the green Web pages devoted to defaming him, this petty, partisan sniping -- is distasteful to Rey. But more to the point, it is irrelevant to a man who has thrived for the past 26 years in a world of relative collegiality, compromise, and collaboration -- Congress.

"To the extent that groups on either side of the divide are eventually going to want to engage one another, to move their interests forward, that's going to require some degree of civility and comity -- that's c-o-m-i-t-y" -- he spells it out slowly, absolutely deadpan -- "among themselves."

Although Rey might never be Superhero of the Forests, he does get plenty of respect in his own neck of the woods. A 1997 article in Washington's "National Journal," for example, named him as one of the 100 most influential decision makers in the city.

"Rey's strength in shaping timber issues comes from his well-nurtured contacts within the federal agencies, with the media, with labor unions, and within the timber industry," the magazine wrote. "While with the [forest-products industry], Rey was instrumental in building a political alliance with the logging worker unions in the battle to open up new federal lands to logging."

At his July 2001 confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry -- a cakewalk -- Rey pledged "bipartisan collaboration in overseeing the stewardship of America's soil, water, and forest resources" and to respect the role of Congress in developing natural-resource policies.

Seven big environmental organizations submitted letters expressing "grave concern" about Rey's appointment, but they fell short of outright opposition. More telling, though, were the endorsements from organized labor -- unlikely allies to the Bush administration. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the National Education Association, and the National Federation of Federal Employees all weighed in with support.

Senate Budget Committee member Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and one of the greens' best hopes to protect old-growth timber, also sent a message of support for Rey's nomination, regretting he couldn't make the hearing.

The only note of caution in the senatorial lovefest was a halfhearted attempt by committee chair Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to pin Rey down on his support for Clinton's Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Rey said he'd be happy to work with Harkin to protect America's roadless values, but the legality of the rule itself was under consideration by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We'll have to see what the courts do with it," he told Harkin. The hearing ended with Rey's unanimous approval by the committee; two months later, the full Senate confirmed his appointment -- again, unanimously.

On the job for a little more than a year now, the undersecretary hopes his collaborative, work-with-Congress style of doing business will be more successful than that of his predecessors, whose big mistake was trying to go it alone.

"I was working for Republican members of Congress on the Hill during most of the Clinton administration," says Rey. His eyes are brown and intense, his face adorned with a salt-and-pepper goatee and handlebar moustache.

Back then, Rey says, Democrats wanted to make everything a partisan issue -- good politics, maybe, but not conducive to resolving issues. "I think my predecessors, perhaps with good reason, decided to write off a Congress controlled by the other party, to see how far they could push the edge of the envelope administratively. And they were very adept at it. They were among the best and brightest in the environmental community from whence they came. They were experts in environmental and administrative law -- some of the smartest people that I know. And they did a pretty thorough job of pushing, within the confines of existing law, the envelope.

"But the result that you have to live with," of failing to line up congressional ducks, failing to win political support for administrative policies, "is that some of those initiatives aren't going to be sustained after you're gone.

"The Roadless Rule is a perfect example. I didn't change the Roadless Rule -- it was struck down by a court."


Within hours of George W. Bush's swearing in, and nine months before Rey assumed the helm at the Forest Service, the new administration took astonishing steps to undo what Clintonites had hoped would be their most-lasting environmental legacy, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Issued just two weeks before Bush's inauguration in 2001, the rule sought to end new road construction and logging on 58.5 million acres of "inventoried" roadless areas within the national forest system. The Forest Service's public process for the new rule began in January 1998 and involved 600 meetings around the country. The result: 1.6 million letters and faxes -- the largest public response ever to a federal environmental policy. A Forest Service analysis of public comments found 97 percent of respondents in favor of implementing the Roadless Rule.

Nevertheless, responding to lawsuits filed by the state of Idaho and the Boise Cascade forest-products company, a federal judge in Idaho issued an injunction blocking the rule's implementation. Appealed by environmentalists, but not by the Justice Department, the case now is before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"There wasn't too much mystery about what was going to happen, in my mind, with that particular rule-making," Rey says. "A court had struck down the Carter administration's efforts to do a single rule-making to resolve the roadless-area [issue] and a Nixon administration effort to do the same thing. And they struck down the Clinton administration effort for essentially the same reason."

But the problem really might have been less about legality than it was about agenda. Senate researchers, who reviewed more than 20,000 pages of records from the Department of Agriculture, concluded that the new president's women and men never had any intention of letting the new rule go into effect -- and took extraordinary steps from their first days in office to kill it.

The policy unmakers worried about political fallout from scrapping the popular rule outright, documents show, until an alternative solution occurred to them: wait "for the judge to make a final ruling that the rule is illegal and comply with the court order." According to a handwritten note on the back of a memo in files belonging to Rey's predecessor, the administration opted to "let judge take rule down."

"Their position in court was scandalous -- scandalous!" says attorney Niel Lawrence, forestry project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Olympia. His harshest criticism is for John Ashcroft's Justice Department. The same agency, under Clinton, cleared the rule after reviewing its legality.

"It is entirely appropriate for a new administration to look at the possibility of whether it wants to have the same policies and same rules as its predecessors," Lawrence says. "It is not appropriate -- it is not conscionable -- to try and work that effect out of the public eye, without going through any kind of public process to explain why it wants to change course."


As forest fires raged throughout the West last summer, President Bush unveiled the Healthy Forests Initiative. The legislative proposal, immediately attacked by greens as a ruse to increase logging of healthy trees, purports to "prevent the damage caused by catastrophic wildfires by reducing unnecessary regulatory obstacles that hinder active forest management."

In the same speech, the president expressed "strong support" for the Northwest Forest Plan but with strong qualifications. Noting that the annual 1.1 billion board feet of timber promised by Clinton has never materialized -- last year's cut, for example, was less than 100 million board feet -- Rey says the plan is "broken."

"The question," says Rey, never a supporter of the plan, "is what options are available to fix it? One option is to see if there is some will to go to Congress and say, 'Let's see if we can work out a better approach.' There is some interest, at least on the part of some members of the Northwest delegation, in exploring that."

"It absolutely is not broken!" says University of Washington professor Jerry Franklin, his voice rising. Leader of the team of biologists that wrote it, Franklin says the plan has "done exactly what the law required it to do."

"The law required a scientifically credible, legal -- within existing law -- plan for managing the national forests in the Northwest," Franklin says. "It did that. It closed the court cases, it got [logging] activities going again, and -- very powerfully -- it became the rock on which we gained a lot of regulatory stability on the state and private lands."

By shifting the burden for protecting wildlife from private lands to federal forests, Franklin says, the plan made it possible for big companies, like Weyerhaeuser, to have more certainty about what would be allowed on their lands.

"So that makes it terrifically successful. It was successful legally; it was successful getting national forest management out of the courts -- for at least a while -- and it was successful bringing regulatory stability to the Northwest, or at least a degree of regulatory stability."

The politicians' timber-harvest promises might have even come true, Franklin says -- but then Mark Rey wrecked everything when, as a staffer for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, he helped write the 1995 Salvage Logging Rider.

Known to greens as "Logging Without Laws," the infamous Salvage Rider temporarily suspended environmental laws, ramped up logging of old growth -- and re-energized the conservation movement. "The Salvage Rider put the enviros back into the trenches and put everything back into the court," Franklin says. "It ended the truce that had been created by the Northwest Forest Plan," resulting in lawsuits and civil disobedience and a new green goal of zero cut on national forests.

The ray of hope in the woods these days, Mark Rey says, is a growing consensus between industry and some environmental groups on a solution that could break the gridlock and increase the timber harvest from public lands.

"There are groups that would like to protect all of the available old growth and are not so much concerned about some of the second-growth areas that have been put off-limits to harvesting under the plan," Rey says. "That simple reality, by itself, is the basis for an alternative approach, should there be an interest and a desire on the part of Congress to do that."


Out in the much-debated Northwest woods, along the Mountain Loop Highway on Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest -- as the murrelet flies, about 55 miles northeast of the Space Needle -- is a second-growth forest of Douglas firs, hemlocks, and cedars -- part of the Skull Thin timber sale. It is an example, perhaps, of the new accord Rey thinks can be reached between loggers and some conservationists.

Last summer, Bellingham-based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance (NWEA) showed uncharacteristic support for logging by orchestrating opposition to an out-of-state green group's lawsuit against Skull Thin and two other proposed commercial thinning sales.

Activists from several small Western Washington green groups say the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance asked them to join in a letter to the Forest Conservation Council of Santa Fe, N.M., requesting that the three Washington sales be dropped from a lawsuit targeting 25 timber sales around the nation. The Forest Conservation Council contends all of the sales mentioned in its suit are uneconomical and should be canceled.

That effort to smooth things over, part of an attempt by the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance to demonstrate a willingness to work with the Forest Service rather than be obstructionist, set the stage for an acrimonious, continuing debate among greens over the future of forest management.

"NWEA's scientific field staff reviews every timber sale on these forests, and we challenge a lot of them," says Mitch Friedman, the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance's executive director. "If we wanted to split hairs, we could challenge them all, but we prefer to use the carrot as well as the stick. The fact is, these specific sales showed a lot of progress in the right direction. If NWEA wanted to file a suit in New Mexico, we'd first give the courtesy of consulting our allies down there to coordinate strategy and message."

Northwest co-plaintiffs on the Forest Conservation Council lawsuit include Friends of the Earth of Seattle and the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

John Talberth, director of conservation for the Forest Conservation Council, says the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance's attempt to pressure his organization into dropping Washington timber sales from the lawsuit amounts to giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

"The idea that conservationists should focus on saving the tattered remnants of our ancients forests and sacrifice the rest is an anachronistic strategy that's been abandoned long ago by the vast majority of forest activists across the nation," Talberth says. "I think that the few groups left still clinging to that strategy must find some political or financial benefit. Maybe there are funders or foundations that like to see this view put forward.

"While I respect and welcome diversity of views and strategies, those who actively undermine groups taking strong positions cross the line of civility and, frankly, undermine their own future. Eventually, these tactics will come back to haunt them when their members find out they're not the frontline defenders of the forest they make themselves out to be."


Made curious by the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance's request that they pressure Talberth to drop his lawsuit, grassroots activists this fall began asking about the long-term goals of NWEA and its coalition partners.

They were outraged by what they learned.

The Old Growth Campaign -- 13 conservation groups in Washington and Oregon -- had been holding talks with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, author of legislation to protect old-growth timber on the west side of the Cascades. As part of those talks, the Campaign provided Wyden with their own "conservative" estimates of how much logging volume might be achieved through Northwest thinning sales -- as much as 800 million board feet a year, they projected -- in exchange for protecting old growth.

While there is general agreement among greens that the region's forests have been horribly damaged by years of logging, there is also widespread disagreement about what, if anything, should be done to repair the damage. Some believe the forests should be left alone to heal themselves. Others support the view of U.W. prof Franklin, who thinks cautious, learn-as-we-go thinning, on a case-by-case basis, in certain types of forests, could accelerate development of wildlife habitat.

But critics of the Old Growth Campaign's support for wide-scale commercial thinning say there is no science to support such a plan -- which they say has more to do with logging than restoration.

Providing politicians with estimates of possible harvest volumes, says longtime Washington forest activist Bonnie Phillips, who played a leading role in the 1989 spotted owl lawsuit that brought about the Northwest Forest Plan, "is terribly naive. It shows how little they [the Old Growth Campaign] understand about politics. They also don't understand the wedge they have now provided to the Bush administration -- specifically Mark Rey. If Rey can show that some environmentalists are willing to sit down and work a deal with industry, he and others who support higher logging levels can more easily try to marginalize the rest of the environmental community, which continues to be deeply concerned with the high cut levels under the Northwest Forest Plan."

"It is appalling that the Old Growth Campaign appears willing to sacrifice maturing second-growth forests, including spotted owl foraging and dispersal habitat, for some increased old-growth protection," says Chad Hanson, director of the zero-cut John Muir Project and a national director of the Sierra Club. "These ecosystems would be utterly devastated, and remnant old-growth forests would be fragmented from one another. That anyone would attempt to call this destruction 'restoration thinning' is intellectually insulting."

Northwest Ecosystem Alliance's Friedman says the thinning figure developed by the campaign is not a hard target, but a back-of-an-envelope calculation to inform a discussion of what might be available.

"Mark Rey has, from his first day, had the authority to push logging on a million acres of old forest and a couple million acres of plantation on the west side [of the Cascades]. We haven't added a single acre to this universe. Our choice was simply between wringing our hands against all logging or offering plantation thinning as a positive alternative to clear-cutting the old stuff. The former would have had less risk to our purity, but the latter has less risk for the ecosystem. I'm comfortable with that."

Peter Nelson, policy director for Biodiversity Northwest, a Seattle conservation organization which belongs to the Northwest Old Growth Coalition, says political reality -- the ascendancy of Republicans, the willingness of Northwest Democrats to forge a timber deal, and Senate testimony from scientists that restoration thinning could produce significant commercial timber volume -- forced them to the bargaining table. "I don't see another responsible course of action," Nelson wrote to members of the Old Growth Campaign's Internet discussion group.

"Our campaign, in the middle of the old-growth policy debate in the Pacific Northwest, was acting intelligently when we ran these 'back of the napkin' numbers" that estimated how much timber could be provided through thinning.

"How else could we react? Not seek out our own numbers to inform ourselves? Ignore the policy conversation (which, mind you, will continue to occur whether we as a movement engage or not)? I don't see another responsible course of action. For those critics, please advise an alternative course."

Says the Sierra Club's Bill Arthur: "Frankly, back-of-the-envelope calculations scare the hell out of me, because that's what invented the 1.1-billion-board-foot number for the Northwest Forest Plan -- which also doesn't have reality to it.

"If you're a fish in the river, you don't care if the silt of your spawning ground comes from an old-growth timber sale, a thinning sale, a salvage sale -- all three of them kill you. So, thinning, even though it may not be destroying old-growth forest, is still a type of logging -- it still requires building roads, soil-disturbing activities, a lot of the negative impacts of any timber sale.

"I think it is definitely premature to be talking about broad-based thinning programs as some kind of trade-off to protect old-growth forests. Should we be protecting old-growth forests? I think the scientific jury is in on that, and yes, we should. There's probably very little cause to continue any kind of logging of old-growth forests. But that doesn't mean we need to, or have to, trade a questionable broad-based thinning program for that."

Northwest Forest Plan author Franklin, though a supporter of cautious restoration thinning, is apprehensive about the direction politics seem to be heading under the Bush administration.

"I'm worried as much about some of the environmentalists as I am about Mark Rey," says Franklin. The centerpiece of the Northwest Forest Plan, he says, is protection of second-growth stands of trees that one day will replace the logged-off old growth. That second growth is known as late successional reserves.

"I've been afraid all along that some in the environmental community are actually prepared to walk away from the late successional reserves with the goal of, 'OK, we'll trade off the young growth stands for the remaining old growth,'" Franklin says. "And if that was done in a way that damages or destroys the integrity of the late successional reserves, that would be a lousy trade-off."

Andy Ryan has worked as an environmental reporter and national political correspondent for the now-defunct Miami News, as a securities analyst specializing in the forest-products industry, and as a communications consultant to state and local governments, private businesses, and environmental groups.

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