Bush Administration Trying To Make It Easier To Turn Forests Into Housing Subdivisions

rey.jpgIn yet another potential last minute rule change, “the Bush administration appears poised to push through a change in U.S. Forest Service agreements that would make it far easier for mountain forests to be converted to housing subdivisions.” Though President-elect Obama has opposed the move, Mark E. Rey, the former timber lobbyist who heads the Forest Service, has signaled that he intends to finalize the plan before Obama’s inauguration. As a presidential candidate, Obama vocally criticized Rey’s plan while campaigning in Montana, calling it “outrageous.”

Rey is pushing a technical change that it will have “large implications“:

The shift is technical but with large implications. It would allow Plum Creek Timber to pave roads passing through Forest Service land. For decades, such roads were little more than trails used by logging trucks to reach timber stands.

But as Plum Creek has moved into the real estate business, paving those roads became a necessary prelude to opening vast tracts of the company’s 8 million acres to the vacation homes that are transforming landscapes across the West.

Scenic western Montana, where Plum Creek owns 1.2 million acres, would be most affected, placing fresh burdens on county governments to provide services, and undoing efforts to cluster housing near towns.

After Rey first proposed the rule last summer, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) requested a Government Accountability Office report that eventually found “considerable internal disagreement” within the Forest Service about the proposed change. The GAO concluded that 900 miles of logging roads could be paved in Montana and that amending the long-held easements “could have a nationwide impact.” Rey told the Washington Post on Wednesday that he plans to push his plan forward “in the next week or so” after he holds courtesy meetings with lawmakers. Tester says no meetings have been arranged yet.

Throughout his tenure heading the Forest Service, Rey has regularly tried to avoid public scrutiny of his anti-environmental policies, such as when he “waited until late on December 23, 2003 to announce the removal of roadless protections to allow logging” in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. When Rey testified before the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health in 2001, he said that wanted the Forest Service to be able to “use categorical exclusions more often” because he believed that environmental assessments wasted “the time of resource managers and taxpayer dollars.”

For more on Bush’s last-minute regulations and proposals, read ThinkProgress’s report, “Bush’s Backward Sprint To The Finish.”