Logging the evidence

The U.S. Forest Service is pulling a Dick Cheney on behalf of the lumber industry.


Amanda Griscom
April 9, 2004 2:38AM (UTC)

According to lawyers from Defenders of Wildlife, agriculture undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, seems to be pulling some moves out of the Dick Cheney playbook -- the very same tricks of evasion and secrecy that have jeopardized the vice president's reputation in the fiasco surrounding his energy task force.

Rey and his department have been dragging their feet in response to requests for public release of documents regarding the Bush administration's proposed overhaul of forest-management practices. Critics suspect the documents might confirm that logging-industry executives wielded undue influence over the process.

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The current tussle began in October 2002, when Defenders of Wildlife and the Endangered Species Coalition slapped the USDA with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. They wanted documentation of the Bush administration's motivation for suspending Clinton-era rule updates under the National Forest Management Act, which governs America's nearly 200 million acres of national forest -- parcels of land that make up 8 percent of the country. NFMA was passed in 1976 and implemented under the Reagan administration to better manage national forests and protect wildlife.

"Bush's NFMA overhaul is the biggest-ever rewrite of our nation's forest-management policies," said Defenders president Rodger Schlickeisen. "These regulations govern every decision that is made about every acre of national forest, and the Bush reforms cater precisely and blatantly to requests that have been made for years by the logging industry." Schlickeisen says the rewritten policies diminish public and scientific input in the planning process, gut many key wildlife protections, and allow increased logging on public land.

"They reverse even the protections that were put in place by the Reagan administration, including basic [National Environmental Policy Act] reviews and biodiversity standards," he added. "These are hardly far-left, eco-liberal kinds of protections if they seemed logical to Reaganites!"

According to Rey, the NFMA rules released by Clinton in 2000 were not technically suspended but simply put into legal limbo. As he explained to Muckraker, "We don't think these 2000 rules are implementable. We know that everybody hates them, so we told [forest managers] that for now [they] can either have the option of using the 2000 revisions or using the 1982 rules" until the Bush administration comes up with something it considers better.

Rey was quick to point out that some groups within the environmental community vigorously objected to the Clinton-era revisions when they came out in 2000 on the grounds that they "were an unjustified weakening of [Reagan's] 1982 rules." It seems contradictory for them to object to further rewrites, he said.

But Mike Leahy, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, argues that Rey is missing the point: "Our lawsuit was in no way a defense of the Clinton administration's rules. It's an investigation into the motives behind Bush's suspension and proposed revisions -- which are a wholesale dismantling of the Forest Service's planning regulations relative to both the 2000 and the 1982 regs."

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Defenders was further irked when Rey's office seemed to come down with a case of selective amnesia: Rey told the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that it had no records whatsoever -- no transcripts, memos, e-mails, or calendar records -- documenting meetings between the agency and industry groups (or anyone else, for that matter) during the process of revising the forest policies.

Granted, Rey is well-versed in the timber industry's concerns, having spent nearly 20 years working for various timber trade associations before joining the Bush administration, so there's an argument to be made that he didn't even need to meet with industry groups to craft their dream policies. Still, the USDA's no-evidence claim seemed as indefensible to the court as to the plaintiffs who requested the documents.

The court agreed with the plaintiffs that "the defendants [did] not meet their burden of conducting a reasonable search and justifying non-disclosure of exempted information." The court told Rey, in effect, to keep trying -- it requested that his office do a further search for information and give a more reasonable explanation for why certain documents should be withheld.

"We're going to comply with the court order," Rey told Muckraker, but he insisted that "there's no need to reach beyond that to broader theories of bad faith and conspiracy, because the court didn't find them and they don't exist."

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That's not enough to convince Defenders of Wildlife.

In early March, Rey told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that substantial "modifications" to the proposal for revamping the Clinton-era rules are in the works and the final draft is likely to be released in the next several months.

"They're probably consulting lawyers to try and make themselves least vulnerable to legal challenge," said Schlickeisen. "Because clearly if these new modifications are anything like what we've seen, they're illegal. And we've made it clear that we'll do what's necessary to prove it."

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Bipartisan House bill may signal growing consensus on climate change
The nascent congressional effort to fight global warming has spread to the House -- but supporters acknowledge that it's not likely to receive an especially warm welcome from the chamber's leadership.

Last week, a motley bipartisan crew of representatives including Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., and John Olver, D-Mass., stood beside Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to introduce companion legislation to the senators' Climate Stewardship Act. The House version, like the Senate's, proposes to set a mandatory cap for greenhouse-gas emissions and create a market-based carbon-dioxide trading system that would allow companies to buy and sell the right to pollute.

Though the senators' bill met its expected defeat on the Senate floor last fall, the narrow 43-55 loss stunned both sides and presented powerful evidence of a growing consensus that federal measures are needed to address global warming.

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"Every week now, we have a new study come out on the increases of greenhouse gases," said McCain at press conference with the sponsors of the House bill. "The overwhelming body of scientific opinion shows that global warming and its ill effects exist."

McCain and Lieberman plan to bring their bill up for another vote in the Senate this spring.

"We're very hopeful," said Casey Aden-Wansbury, Lieberman's press secretary. "We're seeing more and more economists and scientists voicing their concerns about global warming, and taking those concerns to Senate leaders. Even the Pentagon -- hardly a traditionally pro-environment institution -- has come out with a report on the growing threat of global warming, which could help [persuade] some cynics and bring new supporters on board."

While Aden-Wansbury said it's too early to predict how many new yea votes Lieberman and McCain will be able to recruit for their bill, the senators are confident they'll get more support this time around.

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The House, however, tends to be far less amenable to environmental regulations than the Senate -- downright hostile, even.

"Chances are, we may not see the bill on the House floor this Congress," Olver's press secretary, Nicole Letourneau, admitted. "It may not even make it to committee hearings, and everybody kind of knows that. But the Senate bill is going to come up again soon, and part of the reasoning [of House bill supporters] is to help generate much more awareness and support for the Senate version."

Asked at the press conference to predict a timeline for the bill, Gilchrest and Olver agreed that it would require patience: Olver said it might take some years. Gilchrest was more upbeat, saying, "It could happen the next Congress."

Given the current Republican leadership in the House, however, even Olver's modest timeline seems optimistic: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chair of the House Resources Committee and the author of countless editorials along the lines of "Drilling Won't Harm the Environment," are two of the nation's most stridently anti-environment politicians.

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"The current House leadership might give one cause to feel a little bit depressed," said John Coifman, spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center.

But, he added, spirits are buoyed by a growing number of GOP-backed initiatives on climate change. Republican Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and George Pataki of New York, for instance, have supported unprecedented state and regional climate-change initiatives in the last year. A major bipartisan carbon-trading initiative among nearly a dozen East Coast states from Maryland to Maine is also in the works.

"There's a sea change of activity on this matter," said Coifman, "and this Stewardship Act initiative in the House is no exception. Already you're seeing support from an unusual list of Republicans. We're thrilled to see that there are strange fellows in this bed."

Half of the 20 cosponsors of the House bill are Republicans, including Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.; Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich.; Jim Greenwood, R-Pa.; Amo Houghton, R-N.Y.; Nancy Johnson, R-Conn.; Sue Kelly, R-N.Y.; Christopher Shays, R-Conn.; Rob Simmons, R-Conn.; and James Walsh, R-N.Y.

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Boehlert's support in particular is critical given that he chairs the House Committee on Science, one of two committees to which the bill has been referred for hearings (the other is the Committee on Energy and Commerce). Boehlert's spokesperson said a hearing on the bill is not yet on the agenda for this congressional session, but given that Boehlert is a cosponsor of the measure, there's reason to be hopeful.

"The most important thing to remember is that last year there wasn't a bipartisan effort in both chambers of Congress on global warming," said Letourneau. "Now we've got it. There's a lot of work to do, but we have to start the work somewhere. The introduction of this bill means the gates have opened."

Muck it up

We welcome rumors, whistle-blowing, classified documents, or other useful tips on environmental policies, Beltway shenanigans and the people behind them. Please send 'em to muckraker@gristmagazine.com.

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Amanda Griscom

MORE FROM Amanda Griscom

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