Andy Ryan

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.

ARMISTICE OVER

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:

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