Forest Service to fight fires with logging, aggressive management

Last summer, in the weeks before President Bush nominated him to oversee the U.S. Forest Service, Mark E. Rey spent his spare time devouring books on the history of the nation's forests. One tome that he later recommended to others was Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910, Stephen Pyne's detailed account of the horrific blazes that killed 83 people and incinerated 3 million acres of Western forest in just two days.

This summer, the drought-parched West is once again being devastated by wildfires, which some forestry experts are comparing to the 1910 conflagrations. So far this year, fires have burned 3.2 million acres. At the moment, battling the blazing is costing taxpayers $3.7 million a day. If this year's pace continues, the damage will surpass the fire season of 2000-the worst in 50 years-when blazes charred 8.4 million acres and cost more than $1 billion to fight.

Now Rey isn't just reading about fires. As undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the Agriculture Department, Rey has authority over the Forest Service and is coordinating the federal agencies' response to this year's fires.

And he is intent on changing federal land-use policies that he charges are a prime cause of the severity of today's fire problem. Rey argues that the forests should be more aggressively managed to reduce the amount of combustible material available to feed a fire once it breaks out. That means thinning forests that are unnaturally dense, removing trees that are dead or dying. He also supports what he calls "sustainable" logging.

Meanwhile, some supporters of the timber industry are blaming today's wildfires on anti-logging policies successfully pushed by environmentalists. Green activists counter by accusing Rey and the lumber industry of using the fires as an excuse to open up more federal land to logging.

The argument puts Rey, 49, in the middle of a political and philosophical standoff guaranteed to slow any government attempt to reduce the likelihood of devastating wildfires in the national forests. So, Rey is trying to damp down the heated debate.

"It's not very helpful to blame the environmentalists for these fires," he says. "It's equally unhelpful for the environmentalists to be skeptical or suspicious."

However, his industry background makes him difficult for environmentalists to accept as the conflict's mediator. Before being appointed to his current job, Rey had spent 18 years as a timber-industry lobbyist and later worked as legislative director of the forests subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. There, he worked closely with conservative Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who is now the panel's ranking Republican. In the past, Rey often locked horns with environmentalists, and the greens remain dubious about his motives.

Environmental activists say they've learned to be very cautious when dealing with the soft-spoken Rey. "I've always considered Mark to be a very intelligent and very good political strategist," says Michael Francis, a forest policy expert with the Wilderness Society. "He understands the strengths that he has, both in the job and in today's political situation. And he's exploiting them to further the interests of logging and other development activities in the national forests, at the expense of conservation," Francis adds. "In his vocabulary, I think `conservation' is a four-letter word."

Craig, who urged Vice President Cheney to press for Rey's appointment, disagrees, maintaining that his former aide is "the right man in the right place at the right time" to handle today's forest fire problems. "He knows the forests better than anyone I've ever met," Craig says. The senator asserts that Rey will restore balance to Forest Service policies after eight years of Clinton administration policies that, Craig charges, went too far in passively preserving rather than actively managing forests.

While they differ on many things, all sides in the contentious debate agree that the government policy adopted in response to the 1910 fires produced the tinderbox in which today's fires are igniting. The government began extinguishing all natural and man-made forest fires, rather than permitting low-intensity fires to clear the undergrowth and debris from forest floors. Modern scientists who study forestry say the government was tragically misguided in trying to stamp out all forest fires. Without fire's cleansing effects, the nation's forests became unnaturally and dangerously overgrown and choked with underbrush. These conditions, combined with an extended drought, make the woodlands vulnerable to intense wildfires that burn hot enough to consume entire forests and everything else in their paths.

Rey says that the solution is to aggressively manage the forestlands by thinning the dense regions of timber through logging and by using safe, prescribed burns to eliminate the undergrowth. His aim is to return the forests to their pre-1910 condition.

"We need to reduce the fuel loads on these stands of forest as quickly as we can, so that we can get back to a time when natural fires, lower-intensity fires, moved through the stands," he says. "That has to be our top priority."

Rey estimates that a whopping 80 million acres of federal forests are in need of more-active management.

Environmentalists agree that some forest thinning is needed, especially where the forests bump up against outer suburbia. (In forestry jargon, that's the "wildland-urban interface.") But the greens charge that Rey wants a kind of logging far more intensive than the word "thinning" might suggest.

At the crux of the forest-control controversy is the question of how "management" should be defined. Rey and timber-industry officials argue that to accomplish the colossal job of improving conditions in the national forests, government should allow the harvesting of some commercially valuable large trees to give loggers an incentive to do the less-profitable work of "thinning" the forests. According to Rey, "If we're going to be able to do this in anything less than 40 years, we're going to have to find ways to encourage investment by partners who will help defray the costs" of thinning.

Yet environmentalists contend that Rey's real goal is to give state officials and local forest managers far greater authority to ignore federal environmental laws and to expand logging into wilderness areas that are now off-limits. "Public support for protecting the national forests from logging is so strong that [Bush administration officials] have to find other ways to get their logging done," argues Sean Cosgrove, national forest policy specialist at the Sierra Club. "So they'd like to blur the lines of what is active management and [what is] reasonable accounting for a timber-sale program."

Attempts to ease the traditional tensions between the logging industry and the environmental community were dealt a serious setback in May when Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and two Western governors-Republicans Jane Dee Hull of Arizona and Judy Martz of Montana-claimed that environmentalists were to blame for recent wildfires because they had gone to court to block the federal government's proposed thinning projects.

Environmentalists countered that they file far fewer legal challenges than the conservatives allege and that they file their lawsuits only when government officials fail to follow federal laws. "Most of the time, the reason why we litigate is because they're breaking the laws or want to log old-growth forests or destroy fish and wildlife habitat," Cosgrove says. "That's when we try to hold them accountable."

Environmentalists argue that the Bush administration is launching a broad campaign to increase logging in the national forests. They cite as evidence a recent draft report that says the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are considering proposals to "maximize" logging in the Pacific Northwest, partly by cutting more timber in old-growth forests. That document, first reported in the Portland Oregonian, outlines a three-year plan to boost timber harvests while easing environmental protection laws.

Forest Service officials said that the draft report, written by agency staffers in Portland, remains a work in progress and that no final decisions have been made. Rey said that the aim of the report is to comply with the expanded logging goals envisioned, but never acted upon, by the Clinton administration under its 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. That plan sought to end the legal wrangling between environmentalists and timber companies over logging in the Pacific Northwest.

Naturally, timber-industry officials support Rey's proposals to allow more-active management of federal forests and to expand logging. They welcomed his appointment as a break with the Clinton era, when the administration sought to prevent road-building and logging on 58.5 million acres of roadless Forest Service lands.

During the Clinton administration, "we saw decisions on individual logging projects being made within the White House," says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland-based timber-industry group. "We support the Bush administration's efforts to turn the management of these national resources over to the professionals, the ones that live and work with these resources day in and day out." Several industry groups and states have filed suit to overturn Clinton's "roadless" policy. And Rey has already begun to rewrite the regulation.

But while loggers praise the Bush administration's policy shift, some industry officials argue that Rey's hands will be tied by such environmental laws as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Former Rep. W. Henson Moore, R-La., who now heads the American Forest & Paper Association, says that national forest policy needs changes far more fundamental than any Rey can make. "We have a court system that favors the environmentalists filing lawsuits. I think that Mark Rey understands this as well as anyone, but I don't think he can do a lot about it administratively," Moore said. "You have to get to the bottom of the laws that allow these challenges to happen. And I don't see this administration going to Congress with any kind of changes."

In the middle of this hot, dry summer, Rey's most pressing job is to provide the funding and political backup needed by the nearly 12,000 firefighters struggling to contain the huge blazes ravaging the West. Rey resists comparisons between today's fires and the devastating 1910 blazes. Even if this year's fire season continues at its current rapacious pace, he says, "I don't think at the end of the day we'll have ... the number of acres lost, because we have far better firefighting capacity than we did in 1910."

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