USDA Undersecretary Rey talks forest planning, roadless rule, Healthy Forests

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey discusses the Bush administration's forestry policies with E&E Daily reporter Dan Berman. Among the topics: the new forest planning rule, roadless rule and the Healthy Forests Initiative.


Collin Sullivan: Hi, I'm Collin Sullivan and this is OnPoint. Today we're joined by Mark Rey, the undersecretary of Agriculture, and Dan Berman, our Interior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire, to discuss the Bush administration's forest management policies. Mr. Rey, last month the Bush administration came out with a final forest planning rule, first proposed in November 2002. How do you expect the rule to change the way that forests are managed and how would that be an improvement over the way forests were previously managed?

Mark Rey: With the rules we replaced it was taking us eight to 10 years to actually complete a forest plan. That would mean that it took us about three times longer than it took to complete the Manhattan Project and somewhat longer than it took NASA to put a man on the moon. So the first and basic improvement is we're going to be able to complete these plans in a time which makes them meaningful once they're done. But also, what we're going to be able to do is to complete these plans more cheaply, so that we can reinvest that money in on-the-ground stewardship, improving habitats and ecosystems on our national forests and we're going to spend more money monitoring what happens once a plan is complete rather than spending 8 to 10 years trying to get one completed. Those, to us, are significant improvements in the way things happen on the ground.

Dan Berman: Mr. Rey, you mentioned that it will take less time to complete these, the forest management plans and many critics, environmental groups and some in Congress, have said that by taking less time the administration is going to be removing some of the environmental safeguards and environmental compliance with NEPA and other laws. Specifically they point to the wildlife viability standards, something that eventually became part of the groundwork for the Northwest Forest Plan and other major forest plans. What will the forest do to replace the wildlife viability standards?

Mark Rey: Well first, other critics of the old process, said that environmental safeguards didn't get applied on the ground because it took us too long to finalize a plan and we therefore would continue to operate under antiquated standards while we spend eight to 10 years churning through the paperwork necessary to get a plan implemented and on the ground. So there's a trade-off there, and we have critics on both sides. With regard to wildlife, we think that the alternative approach using habitat and habitat trends as a surrogate for individual population species numbers is the approach that will result in the same or greater levels of wildlife protection, because in this case we're actually measuring something that we have data on and know about. So we can make reasoned decisions about the impacts of activities without the level of speculation that we were previously engaging in because we didn't have data on population trends of every individual species on the national forest. You know, we've spent a lot of time and consulted with a lot of experts before we made that change to the wildlife standard and many of the wildlife groups who are particularly interested in wildlife species, groups like the Ruffed Grouse Society and Wildlife Management Institute, have told us they think this approach has every prospect of being superior to the previous way that we tried to do this.

Dan Berman: So you're not concerned that this will lead to increased listings under the Endangered Species Act?

Mark Rey: To the contrary, I think it has every possibility of slowing the rate of species that are added to the endangered and threatened species list.

Dan Berman: What about recovery? Will it aid in recovery? I know many critics have said that the ESA simply hasn't worked in terms of getting species recovered. Will this help that out?

Mark Rey: I think our new regulations in general will assist in recovery because it will free up more resources to do on-the-ground habitat improvement work, which is a necessary prerequisite for recovery to occur. It's one thing to do the work necessary to evaluate whether a particular species is in trouble and then decide whether to list it or not, but after you've listed it, once you try to recover it, the recovery actions that have to take place involve investments in time and money to do the work necessary to improve habitat to increase species numbers. So I think these regulations as a whole, by freeing up resources to make those investments, has every possibility of enhancing recovery.

Collin Sullivan: Can you talk about what the interrelationship there is between the ESA reform on the Hill and the rule that you're talking about?

Mark Rey: Not really any direct relationship at all. I mean the Endangered Species Act deals with the status of species on all land ownerships and federal lands have an important role to play in protecting and recovering endangered species and we meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act as they apply to us, as does every other land owner. But these regulations go beyond that to govern what we do for all resource values on our national forest including wildlife values in the actually impose a somewhat stricter standard than the Endangered Species Act because part of the goal of these regulations is to prevent species from being listed where we can.

Collin Sullivan: So you don't expect to play any role on the Hill when it comes to ESA reform this year?

Mark Rey: No.

Collin Sullivan: Not at all?

Mark Rey: I don't think of the part of the discussion over ESA reform. I think the discussion over Endangered Species Act reform, I try not to use too many abbreviations or acronyms, I think most of the debate over the reform of the Endangered Species Act is going to look to what we can add to the current act to get active programs moving to help species recovery, which has been the great failure of the act so far.

Dan Berman: Another kind of controversial aspect of the planning rule is the idea that not all forest management plans need to have the environmental impact statement or environmental assessment done when the plans are written. Instead, kind of the focus shifts to later on for individual projects. Can you explain why that switch is made, and why you think it's an improvement over the old rule?

Mark Rey: Well, we worked pretty hard at this, the main thing we want to do here is to invest more of our time and energy in active monitoring of what's actually happening and if we implement these plans to collect the information that we need to know whether the plans are performing as we thought or whether they should be modified. So we have added a whole new aspect to the forest planning process to emphasize that on-the-ground monitoring and a greater interaction between what we do once we have a plan completed, what we measure as we're implementing it and how we change it based upon what we find out as we collect that information. At the front-end, what we find is that as you're amending or revising plans, in some cases, you're not making any real new decisions and where you're not making any real new decisions, as compared to the original plan, then to undertake a lot of paperwork analysis is a waste of resources. It's an impediment to having the funds, the energy, the manpower available to do the monitoring work that we think is more important. So what we tried to do is to match the environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act to the point and time the decisions are actually made that have impacts on the environment and where we're making decisions that have impacts on the environment, do that analysis then. But not at a time we're not really making any irreversible decisions.

Dan Berman: Do you think there's, you know, kind of a danger of a loophole? Because if forest managers don't have to conduct the EIS, environmental impact statement, when they create the plan, but the Healthy Forest Initiative and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act allows projects such as thinning for catastrophic wildfires, many of those are allowed to have categorical exclusions, which means they also don't have to have these environmental studies. So for those projects, where is the analysis?

Mark Rey: Well, two important points, the regulations don't say that you never have to do an environmental analysis when you revise or amend a plan. They do say that if you're not making significant changes or not making decisions that affect the environment that you may not have to do an environmental analysis at the point you develop a plan. So some plan amendments will require an EIS, some won't and that will go directly to the nature of what's being considered or what's being changed in that particular plan amendment. Now as it regards individual projects and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, I would submit that the environmental analysis for certain categories of projects has already been done and that's the database that was the justification for the categorical exclusion for certain types of projects under certain circumstances with clear sideboards around the project to make sure that the project was going to have the same effect that roughly 5,000 projects that had been subject to environmental analysis before then had and that that's a minimal environmental affect.

Collin Sullivan: If we can change the subject to Healthy Forest, last year, in the implementation phase of the Healthy Forest Act, Forest Service and Interior treated about 4.2 million acres under Healthy Forests. Do you expect this kind of progress to continue? Can you meet that rate?

Mark Rey: I hope so.

Collin Sullivan: And do you need a budget increase to do so?

Mark Rey: Well, we are increasing the budget for these programs on a pretty consistent basis and we have every year since we came in the door in 2001. I can't talk to you much about the president's 2006 budget because it won't be released until the week after next. We are interested in accelerating the work that needs to be done. Four million acres was a good improvement over what the annual accomplishments were in the late 1990s and through 2000. In those years, the federal land managing agencies were treating about 1 million acres annually, so we've quadrupled the size of the effort in four years time. The challenge for us now will be to double that again and get to the point where, on a reliable basis, we're treating 8 million acres annually. The reason that we are looking to that as a goal is that we think there's probably 80 to 90 million acres of federal land that require priority treatments, that are in the wildland-urban interface near communities where there are municipal watersheds or other ecological or economic values at risk. If we can get to the point where we're treating 8 to 9 million acres a year then we'll be in a position to be able to resolve this crisis in about eight to 10 years time, which is what it's going to take. It's not a problem we got into overnight it's not a problem we are going to get out of overnight.

Dan Berman: Yeah, Healthy Forest Act covers only 20 million acres of at-risk lands. When do you foresee the administration will have to go back to Congress to kind of, either reauthorize or extend the act?

Mark Rey: I don't know that for sure. I suspect at some point we'll hit that 20 million acres number, and I hope at that point that our track record is one where everybody involved can say this was a good thing, there's more acres that need to be treated, let's extend the authority. It'll be incumbent on us to do this work in a way that brings people to that conclusion and that's we're committed to doing.

Dan Berman: OK. Last year, you know kind of again back to the budget, the administration asked for 476 million, specifically for hazardous fuels reduction authority under the act, but several Democratic Senate leaders, including Senators Wyden and Feinstein who helped push the Healthy Forest bill in 2003, specifically put in a provision authorizing for 760 million and they were complaining that they gave you the authority but, you know, you guys just weren't asking for enough money.

Mark Rey: Right.

Dan Berman: So you're able to get everything done with money you have or could you really just, if you asked for the full amount could you really just kind of ramp up this program?

Mark Rey: Well let me make three quick points. First of all, Congress didn't meet our full request, so I guess this year when I go up before the Appropriations committees the nature of the dialogue will have to be different because they shorted us in what they appropriated in the omnibus appropriations bill below what the administration requested.

Dan Berman: The final tally was 466?

Mark Rey: The final tally was 462 I think, so they shorted us by about 4 or 5 million dollars. The second point is that the authorization of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act talks about 760 million dollars for hazardous fuels treatment and other activities authorized in the act or already under way. Our view is that when we tallied up all the budget items that contribute to the goals of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act we were requesting 760 million dollars not just the hazardous fuels account, but including work that's done under other budget accounts that achieve the same purposes. So we believe that we asked for what Congress authorized. But the point is, whether some people want to say it was too much, presumably there were some members of Congress who thought it was too much since they didn't appropriate it, or whether they thought it was too little. And of course you are correct in that dialogue we have a little under a year ago, that was one of the challenges. Irrespective of either of those positions, we requested more money to do this work than any administration has requested of any Congress in the history of the republic. So I'm not dissatisfied with what we requested, and I'm very pleased with the agency's progress with the money that we've been given.

Collin Sullivan: Mr. Secretary, if we could move onto the roadless rule. The Bush administration's proposed revisions to the roadless rule ended in November, the comment period ended in November.

Mark Rey: Correct.

Collin Sullivan: When can we expect the roadless revisions to be finalized?

Mark Rey: Well, we're completing a review of the docket of comments, which were voluminous and right now our folks tell us that they think we can probably look for something in May.

Collin Sullivan: A number of Democratic governors have come out in opposition to some of the proposed changes. How brutal a fight do you expect this to be?

Mark Rey: I don't expect a big fight at all. Some governors have been supportive, some have raised questions and that's been on a bipartisan basis. We've had Democrats that are supportive and Democrats that have raised questions. We've had Republicans that are supportive and Republicans that have raised questions. Governor Freudenthal in Wyoming, who's a Democrat, believes that we don't need a roadless rule it all. So he's not too enthusiastic about our proposal, but he is opposed to the 2001 proposal as well. So there's a pretty wide variety of views among the governors. But I think once we get started in working on state specific rules, if we decide to go that way, that we're going to find a lot of governors interested in working with us to put this issue behind them and to get it over with. It's an issue that's been kicking around for 40 years and in that 40-year time frame, three times, my predecessors, who thought they were a lot smarter than I guess I think I am, thought they could do it through a single national rulemaking in one fell swoop and all three of those failed court challenges. In the intervening period between those three attempts, we tried to do it on an individual forest-by-forest basis as we modified or developed our land management plans. That didn't work very well either. In fact, I daresay that if it had worked well we wouldn't have had a third attempt at a nationwide rulemaking. This, to us, is a third way, working with the governors on a state-by-state basis to see if we can bring this to closure. Hasn't been tried before, but we know the other two options haven't succeeded, so maybe this has the prospect of a greater likelihood of success. If nothing else it's at least a new way to make the same mistakes.

Dan Berman: Do you think it's fair to be giving individual states almost veto power over the way some of the federal lands in their states are managed?

Mark Rey: Well, these are still going to be federal rules, because they are federal lands. The ultimate decisionmaker will be the federal government. But I think it is fair to involve the states as partners in those decisions. It's not only fair I think it's prudent, because the main litigants challenging the 2001 rule were states. It was challenged by nine different states in seven different lawsuits. And here again, you know, it may be that this approach won't work, but if nothing else occurs at least in the litigation that follows this effort the states will be intervener defendants rather than plaintiffs, and I'd rather have them on my side than suing me.

Dan Berman: OK. Also with the states, I mean, what happens if the state just kind of blows it off and says either, "We can't afford it." Or "We just don't have the time or the desire to file a request to the forest service." I mean, where does that leave that land?

Mark Rey: Or "It's just not a big enough issue in my state," or "It's an issue that's already resolved in my state," which is the case in some states. This issue is most pertinent in about 12 Western states and there I think the governors are going to want to step forward and participate. It's an opportunity to engage them as partners. I mean I've heard a lot of them say they want to approach it differently than others, but I haven't heard any of them, of the most effected ones, say, "Oh no, I'm not gonna get involved in this."

Dan Berman: I guess the question is what is the status of the roadless areas now if they aren't designated as roadless or if the states just don't request it?

Mark Rey: Well, the status right now is that we're protecting them all through an interim directive that requires that any decision to build a road in a roadless area come to Washington to the chief of the Forest Service for approval and he so far hasn't approved any. I think your second question is, hypothetically, if the governor decides not to step forward, what happens? And what happens then is we'll continue to address the roadless issue through the amendment and revision of the forest plans. And there are some states, as I said, where the issue is pretty much resolved in the forest plan and there's nothing left to argue about. A lot of our Eastern national forests fit that description. Most or all of the roadless areas have already been allocated to uses where additional road construction isn't going to occur and there's nothing really left to argue about.

Collin Sullivan: OK. We'll let that be the last word. Mark Rey, Dan Berman thank you both for joining us. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint.

[End of Audio]



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines