USDA's Mark Rey defends Bush policies on Tongass, forests and roadless rule repeal

Are taxpayers unfairly subsidizing private logging by spending millions on roads and other aids to the industry? Can logging and conservation practices in the Tongass National Forest find a balance? What does the roadless rule repeal mean for natural resources in national forests nationwide? Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, joins OnPoint to talk about these and other Bush administration forest policies and plans.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. With us today is Mr. Mark Rey, undersecretary of Agriculture and head of the U.S. Forest Service. Also with us is Dan Berman, Interior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Secretary Rey thanks for being here.

Mark Rey: Colin, good to be here, Dan, good to see you again.

Colin Sullivan: It's a big week on Capitol Hill for Interior Department and appropriations. The Interior bill, which also funds the U.S. Forest Service, is going to the House floor this week. One of the big amendments the environmentalists are pushing would essentially stop federal funds for road building in Tongass National Forest, Alaska's Tongass National Forest. I'm wondering if the administration has a position on that, whether you're actively pursuing defeat of that amendment.

Mark Rey: We are opposed to that amendment. We think the proper management of the Tongass National Forests should be governed by the land management plan that was developed by our predecessors, the Clinton administration in 1997. At that time the Clinton administration said that the plan was developed with the best scientific information available, and we've been monitoring the implementation of the plan since. So I don't think arbitrary amendments to prohibit funding for this or that use on the Tongass are as good an approach, ecologically, as the land management plan that was developed with the best scientists that the government could put on the task.

Colin Sullivan: Well what's interesting about the amendment is this amendment passed the House last year during the same debate, but it didn't survive into the omnibus appropriations bill.

Mark Rey: Right.

Colin Sullivan: A lot of conservative Republicans are for the amendments and taxpayer groups are for the amendment. They think that essentially you're wasting federal tax dollars on road building in national forests. What's your response to that?

Mark Rey: Well, the Taxpayers for Common Sense is in favor of the amendment, but as they'll indicate in their letter to Congress this week, they're also in favor of privatizing the Tongass National Forest. I think that's where they'll part company with some of the environmental supporters of this amendment. The Tongass National Forest is 95 percent protected. Our challenge is to use the remaining 5 percent of the forest to provide a sustainable economy for the 70 or so a thousand aught citizens in Southeast Alaska. We think the 1997 land management plan strikes the right balance for that purpose, between that purpose and protection of the environment, and that's why we're going to oppose the amendment.

Dan Berman: But at this point, in 2004 the Forest Service spent about $49 million on road building and some related activities out there and timber sales yielded less than $1 million. How can you justify such a gap in what you're spending --

Mark Rey: Well, some of that expenditure was an investment in timber sales that are going to be offered in the future and that will return revenues in future years. So you don't recoup the investment you make in planning or any sort of activity on any national forest in the year you make that investment. There are out year revenues that come in. But the point is, if we were charged with managing the Tongass to maximize profits for the government, we'd manage it very differently, but that's not our charge. Our charge, instead, has been to protect the resources of the Tongass, something that environmental groups have been insistent upon and still, if we can in the course of that protection, maintain a lifestyle and a sustainable economy for citizens who are dependent and live in that forest. And we think the 1997 plan does a pretty good balance of that. It's not as, it's not losing money the way that opponents are suggesting. They're using a snapshot of a moving picture to paint a picture that's quite inaccurate.

Dan Berman: Well, it's lost money in previous years and then kind of the snapshot for 2004 suggests with the previous numbers that it's going to lose more money in the future. At what point do the losses become unsustainable and unacceptable?

Mark Rey: Well, in some years it makes money. In some years it loses money, just looking at the narrow comparison between what we invest and what we get back in receipts from timber sales, but that narrow comparison ignores the fact that those timber sales are economic drivers to create a sustainable economy, a tax base in Southeast Alaska that returns additional revenues and values to both local, state and federal governments. So there again, I think the Tongass is a lot more profitable than the critics suggest, but beyond that I will tell you even on a narrower, revenues in, costs out comparison, we could make money managing the Tongass, but that's not what the environmental community nor the Congress has told us to do. They've told us first maximize environmental protection and then create a sustainable economy for the people of Southeast Alaska. We're doing both of those and we're doing them successfully.

Dan Berman: OK. If we can kind of shift gears a little bit to the roadless rule, which the final version of the Bush administration plan was announced two weeks ago. Essentially what you're doing is you're giving governors a chance to petition the Forest Service and the USDA to protect the inventory of roadless acres on national forests in their state. During the comment period about 1.8 million comments came in. I believe the figure is over 95 or 98 percent opposed your plan. How can you defend going forward with the plan in the face of such opposition?

Mark Rey: Well, to be slightly more precise those comments supported continuing the 2001 rule, which we replaced with this rule. The problem is the 2001 rule has been enjoined nationwide by a federal district court decision. So notwithstanding the passion that those comments experienced, what they're asking us to do essentially is break the law. Now those comments were generated by interest groups who feel very passionately about this issue and my hat's off to their ability to mobilize large numbers of people to send us postcards and form letters, which is what most of those were. But federal rulemakings are not state ballot initiatives. They're not referenda, they're not plebiscites. We accept comments to learn more about issues that we may not have been cognizant of when we propose a regulation and the longer more substantive comments are more useful for that purpose than form letters or postcards. We still read the form letters and postcards. We tabulate them all religiously. We keep track of them so that we can tell you how many there were and how they broke, but this is not a beauty contest or a popularity contest. Our charge was to try to produce a rule which the courts would sustain, which they haven't so far in the 2001 rule, we think we've done that.

Dan Berman: Well that ruling from Judge Brenner in Wyoming that you mentioned is currently under appeal.

Mark Rey: Sure.

Dan Berman: The appeal was heard, in fact, the week that the final rule was announced. What happens if the court vacates that Wyoming decision and doesn't that mean that then the 9th and the 10th Circuit Courts of Appeals would have upheld the Clinton rule?

Mark Rey: Well, I think that's hypothetical at three levels. What happens if the court decides this and then what does that mean if it decides it a certain way? The 10th Circuit hasn't decided yet. Let's wait and see what they do. But even if the hypotheticals play out the way you've suggested, the state of North Dakota is suing us in the 8th Circuit. So if that's the case, we'll hear from the 8th Circuit before it's over. When we looked at the 2001 rule, as we decided how we wanted to proceed, our conclusion was then and is today that because the 2001 rule was the subject of nine different lawsuits in four different judicial circuits with seven sovereign states as plaintiffs, as well as numerous local governments, tribes and private parties, that the Clinton rule faced at best a very uncertain legal future. With the only real certainty being that it would be the subject of several more years of litigation in four separate judicial circuits with a probability or at least a high possibility being ultimately the Supreme Court would have to sort it all out. Rather than --

Dan Berman: Well, what's wrong with that? What's wrong with letting the Supreme Court decide?

Mark Rey: Well that doesn't make any progress. We think that the approach we have proposed and finalized has a better prospect for bringing this issue to an acceptable conclusion over a shorter period of time. Not that I dislike lawyers and want to put them out of work, but --

Dan Berman: Do you think there won't be any litigation of this new rule?

Mark Rey: Well I think that it's much less likely that the new rule will be litigated, one and number two, even if it is litigated then in that next generation of litigation the states will be defendants with us, rather than plaintiffs suing us and that's where I'd like the federalism to reside.

Dan Berman: OK.

Colin Sullivan: A lot of your critics have said that you've had revising the roadless rule in your sights since you worked for Senator Craig and Senator Murkowski on Capital Hill, even before that, since you were a timber industry lobbyist. What do you make of that tone? Do you take it personally that environmentalists sort of cast you as former timber lobbyist, former Republican on Capitol Hill who all along has had a single-minded agenda to come in and scrap timber laws throughout the country? What's your response to that?

Mark Rey: I don't think, I don't believe in taking labels personally in this business. They are part of the interest group dialectic and sometimes they're nastier than others, but they seldom go to the heart of a matter in any case. As far as my origins as a forest products industry representative there was no roadless rule of that time so I couldn't possibly have had it in my sights because it didn't come to be until --

Colin Sullivan: But when you were on, when you were a staff member on Capitol Hill, you were part of --

Mark Rey: I was a public servant as I am today and Senator Craig's judgment, as was the judgment of many members of Congress both Republican and Democrat and many governors, witnessed by the fact that both Democrat and Republican governors sued over the 2001 rule, was as public servants we collectively viewed the process under which that rule was developed as flawed. And that's a view that I still have today, but to our credit we didn't jump to that conclusion overnight. We spent four years looking at this. We waited to see how some of the court cases were going to unfold. The majority of judges who've ruled on this rule so far have ruled against it. Five judges have issued rulings; three have been against, to have been for.

Colin Sullivan: But wouldn't your critics say that you came to that conclusion in 2001 when you worked on the Senate Energy Committee?

Mark Rey: Well I think if that was the case then we probably would've gone about doing something a lot sooner than this, but instead we went through an analysis of the 2001 rule, an analysis of what it did on the ground and what it didn't do on the ground, an assessment of the errors that were hardwired into it because it was done in haste, an assessment of the litigation that it was facing, which was extraordinary. Enough federal judges are reviewing this rule so that you could fill up a Major League Baseball lineup card with their names and still have judges left over for bench strength. Then we went through an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, framing some fundamental questions for the public, a proposed rule and now a final rule. If we were bound and determined to pursue the course that we have closed on we could've done that four years ago, but we haven't.

Dan Berman: What does, you mentioned the governors and having the states on your side. What kind of reaction have you received from governors, especially in the West where the majority of the roadless areas are?

Mark Rey: I think about what you'd expect. The Republican governors, because there is a partisan element to any federal rulemaking, Republican governors have been more enthusiastic than the Democrat governors. But by and large the Democrat governors have indicated if we get an opportunity to make some suggestions then we're going to take that opportunity, which is all we've asked.

Dan Berman: OK. How can, is there anyway that you're going to be able to assure governors that their suggestions on these roadless areas will be taken seriously? I know Governor Richardson in New Mexico has said that he will submit a petition to the Forest Service to protect the roadless areas, but his concern is that, and he's been fighting the Interior Department and BLM, on oil and gas drilling in Otera Mesa. So he says, well, they're not going to listen, the administration is not going to listen to the governor on one issue, what makes them think they're going to listen on another?

Mark Rey: Well, on Otero Mesa the jury is still out. We're still discussing it. We are in agreement with Governor Richardson on drilling in other areas like Valle Vidal. I think the assurance I would offer to governors is that if we hadn't wanted their input we wouldn't have asked the question in the first place. One of the precepts of good public policymaking is don't bring people to the table if you're not interested in hearing what they have to say in the first instance. In this case, we truly want the states to be partners in this endeavor and we think the result that we'll achieve will be a superior result as a consequence. You know this issue has been with us for over 40 years and three times during that period my predecessors, who I guess thought they were a lot smarter than I think I am, felt that they could bring this issue to a conclusion in one fell swoop through a nationwide rulemaking. That was tried in the Nixon administration, the Carter administration and now the Clinton administration and all three were brought up short, twice by the courts, once by the agency itself.

Dan Berman: Do you think that makes it kind of more of a symbolic and political issue than it really is for management on the ground?

Mark Rey: I think that the elements of political symbolism to this issue are substantially greater than the substantive differences that occurred among the groups and I think if we get the opportunity on a state-by-state basis to work to these issues area by area, what we're going to find is that people, when they actually confront the substance as opposed to the symbols, are going to be in a greater level of agreement than they could have possibly imagine.

Colin Sullivan: One last question on roadless and then we'll move on to something else.

Mark Rey: OK.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think nowadays it's more about oil and natural gas development than it is about timber harvesting, the need for this revision on the Clinton-era rule?

Mark Rey: I don't think it's fundamentally about either. I think it's fundamentally about how you make decisions involving federal lands that people care very intensely about. And I think it's the process that was used in 2001 that alienated the states and local governments. What we believe is if we can create a process that welcomes them as partners that the outcome may not be substantively different, but how we get there is going to be dramatically different and if that's the case, we have a much higher probability of bringing closure to this issue after 41 years.

Colin Sullivan: Congress is also in the process of looking at the National Environmental Policy Act. Do you have a position on what needs to be changed with NEPA and why is that? I mean you can kind of broadly lay out how you see NEPA not functioning the way you think it should.

Mark Rey: We're still in the early stages of working with Congress in their review of NEPA. We welcome their review of how the National Environmental Policy Act is working. We welcome congressional oversight generally, but I'm not yet in a position to sort of frame what we're going to tell Congress because they're at an early stage of their review. They haven't asked for our comments yet and we're still kind of mulling over what we'd like to tell them. Administratively we have done a lot over the last four years to try to find ways to use NEPA more effectively at a lower cost to do the environmental review and analysis that NEPA requires, but to continue to get good project work done on the ground without consuming all the dollars that Congress gives us.

Colin Sullivan: So it's another case of too much red tape and we need to find some, your position is that you need to find some sort of way to cut through the bureaucracy?

Mark Rey: I think that when we walked in the door four years ago, and we did an assessment of how much the Forest Service with spending on administrative reviews, analytical processes, we came to the conclusion, the agency came to the conclusion, doing the study at our request, that 40 cents out of every appropriated dollar was being spent on analysis and process work. I don't think that that's justifiable. We do have to do good work on the ground, but we eventually have to do work on the ground if we're going to achieve stewardship objectives. You know that 40 cents is coming out of Wildlife Habitat Improvement dollars. It's coming out of all of the program dollars that we get and we'd like to reduce that so that we can get more of that money to the ground to do good stewardship work.

Dan Berman: OK. Well speaking of on the groundwork, the GAO recently came out with a report criticizing the Forest Service for its management of reforestation programs. It said that the Forest Service estimates it has a major backlog of about 900,000 acres, but they couldn't verify that backlog. Is there anyway to, you know, for you guys to be able to say how much you have?

Mark Rey: I think the estimate of 900,000 acres is about, is pretty close to being right. A good part of that backlog is the result of the large catastrophic fires we've had over the last several fire seasons. I think the lion's share of it is a consequence of delayed recovery efforts as a result of disputes, appeals and litigation over the recovery of those areas and we've got to get beyond that and address which of those areas should be reforested and which don't need it.

Dan Berman: So do you have a plan to address the reforestation backlog? I know Congressman Walden has said that he's thinking about kind of a Healthy Forest type bill to help you address the backlog, which I assume that would include some NEPA exemptions, some --

Mark Rey: Well I don't start with any assumptions because I haven't seen any of Congressman Walden's ideas, but there are some things we're looking at and would suggest to them that would help us deal with the backlog. So yeah that's something we want to take a look at this year and next and see if we can get better and more effectively about the task of --

Dan Berman: Specifically what are you looking at and what would you suggest?

Mark Rey: I think one of the things we would suggest is broadening the use of some of our existing emergency rehabilitation authorities to include more reforestation work for a longer period after a fire. Now if we can get that authority that will allow us to use funds left over from firefighting when we have a relatively benign fire year to get ahead of that backlog. So that's one of the things we're mulling over and might suggest. It's a little bit premature yet, because we haven't sent anything suggestions up to the Hill.

Colin Sullivan: What's it look like now? Is the Forest Service ready for the upcoming fire season? Do you have enough air tankers to deal with --

Mark Rey: We have enough aviation assets to deal with the upcoming fire season, just as we did last year. Last year we had to ground and the air tanker fleet to do a safety review which we have partially completed. As a substitute for the air tankers we put on a larger number of helitankers and helicopters. Our aviation resources are most important on initial attack, to work to suppress a fire when it's first discovered, particularly when access to the area where the fire is burning is limited to ground crews. In 2003, with all of the air tankers available to us, we were able to successfully extinguish 98.3 percent of all the fires that ignited. Last year with our modified aviation fleet, heavier reliance on helicopters, we were able to extinguish 99.1 percent of all the fires that ignited. So the air tankers aren't essential for effective fire suppression work. They're essential for more cost effective fire suppression work because they're less expensive than the helicopters, but if we need to, if we can't bring enough air tankers online safely, we have the capability and the funding to back fill with helicopters.

Colin Sullivan: OK. Well, we're out of time. Secretary Rey thanks for coming, hope you come back.

Mark Rey: You're welcome.

Colin Sullivan: Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint, until then I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

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