USA — He overhauled federal forest policy to cut more trees – and became a lightning rod for environmentalists who say he is intent on logging every tree in his reach.
After nearly seven years in office, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey still has a long to-do list. Near the top: Persuade a federal judge to keep him out of jail.
Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist who has directed U.S. forest policy since 2001, also wants to set up state rules making it easier to build roads in remote national forests and to restore overgrown, unhealthy forests by clearing them of small trees and debris that can stoke wildfires. And he wants to streamline cumbersome regulations that can paralyze actions on public lands.
But a Montana judge, accusing Rey of deliberately skirting the law so the Forest Service can keep fighting wildfires with a flame retardant that kills fish, has threatened to put him behind bars.
Judge Donald Molloy says the Forest Service violated federal law when it failed to go through a public process to analyze the potential harm from using ammonium phosphate, a fertilizer that kills fish, as the primary ingredient for retardant dropped on wildfires.
For Rey, who faces a court date today, the prospect of jail time is daunting.
“It is something we take seriously,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to comply with the judge’s order.”
But it’s just one more obstacle as he attempts to rid federal policies of pesky paperwork and endless litigation that slows forest managers from cutting down trees.
Rey’s signature accomplishment – passage of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act – quickened approval of projects to thin overgrown forests so they can be completed within months rather than years.
The law, the first major change in forest management in a quarter-century, has helped restore healthy forests after decades of neglect and mismanagement, supporters say.
“We are now treating four times as many acres as we did when this administration came into office,” Rey said in an interview, “and those treatments are showing the desired effect.”
Devastating wildfires in California last fall on about 800 square miles killed 10 people and burned about 2,200 homes – half the number of homes destroyed in similar fires in 2003, Rey said.
Rey’s critics say talk of “treatment” and “thinning” is code for Rey’s real goal: cutting more trees in service of his former timber industry cronies.