Obama Defends Forests

To those of you tuning in here in hopes of seeing chairs flying across the room, bottles cracked over pates, and air blue with words banned from the airwaves, go soak your heads. And tune in tomorrow. But be aware that neither James nor I (I believe I can speak for him in this regard) would descend to a barroom brawl. We have our dignity, such as it is. Oh, and if you came in late, you can check out the new page in the sidebar over there on the right, the one giving a blow by blow history of the whole Dueling Bloggers Sock War.

Several days ago, Benjamin Vogt over at The Deep Middle posted — well, a rant, actually, even though it’s mostly an article excerpt — against a huge, secret deal that would make it easier for the largest landowner in the U.S. and in Montana to develop its scattered Montana lands for residential use.

Today, Obama has taken a stand against that deal, saying that it will make forest access more difficult for hunters, hikers, and other sports-minded folk. (Clearly, he’s getting to know his Montana audience.)

So, does that mean there’s hope? Let’s hope so–

The original article, published by the Washington Post, said that "The deal was struck behind closed doors between Mark E. Rey, the former timber lobbyist who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and Plum Creek Timber Co., a former logging company turned real estate investment trust that is building homes." (That link to the Forest Service was provided by the Post.)

And what exactly does this deal do? Since this is the rural west, it has to be about either water rights or roads; in this case, it’s roads. The roads that lead to property owned by Plum Creek Timber go through a great deal of public land, where roads have been permitted only for logging. The deal Rey negotiated lets Plum Creek use and even pave these roads for residential use, even though they pass through public land. This makes it much easier for Plum Creek to develop those lands, because they can now assure potential buyers that they’ll be able to drive their SUVs right up to their pine-shaded doors.

[Several days before news of this deal broke, the New York Times ran an upbeat article titled "Deal Is Struck in Montana to Preserve Forest Areas." According to this deal, the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land will pay about $510 million for approximately 320,000 acres (or 500 square miles) of forested land, which they will put into permanent conservation easement. Who owns that land?  Plum Creek Timber Co. You have to wonder if this was the sugar meant to sweeten the other deal which makes it so much easier for them to develop the remaining 900,000 acres or so of their holdings in western Montana.]

As far as I can tell, Obama didn’t say anything about the cost of protecting what will be largely trophy homes from the fires that are more and more a fact of western life. (So he’s still got something to learn.)

Just about anyone who’s been paying attention knows that one reason fire seasons keep getting worse is there are more and more houses being built in fire-prone areas, and firefighters are spending millions of dollars–oh sorry, make that billions– and occasionally getting killed, trying to protect them.

There are other reasons for the recent spate of bad fire seasons of course, including fuel build-up from a decades-long policy of putting fires out rather than letting them burn, as well as recent wide-spread drought and high temperatures, which have dried all that fuel to matchstick-readiness. (These are the three reasons given in a 2007 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, succinctly summarized by Headwaters Economics.

We can’t change how we fought fires last year or twenty years ago; there’s no quick fix for the fuel buildup. We also can’t control this year’s weather. I’m not saying we can’t do anything about the fuel buildup or about global warming; we can do lots. But we can’t do anything that will have a quick or immediate impact.

The problem with homes in the forest, though– that we can do something about now: stop building them. We can also pass laws requiring people in vulnerable wildland-urban interfaces (as they’re called) to create and maintain fire-breaks around their homes, and to use fire-resistent materials in their buildings. Cedar shakes are not a real smart choice in an area likely to burn. But the most obvious thing we can do is to make it harder (that’s the opposite of easier) to build homes in fire-prone areas.

In case you haven’t had your fill of irony yet today, here’s a good one: Mark E. Rey, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, was interviewed in February of  2007 for a widely syndicated story titled "24 Firefighters Killed in ’06 Wildfires." According to that story, "Rey said he hopes local communities will impose zoning restrictions on building homes in fire-prone forests, the way flood plains are regulated."

Yes, this is the same Mark E. Rey who secretly negotiated the deal Obama is opposing. And Rey wants local communities to limit the areas in which homes can be built? Sure he does. That’s why he conducted those negotiations in secret.

3 Responses to Obama Defends Forests

  1. Seems to me that we have a history of building in really stupid places and then expecting the government to fix the problem or bail us out when nature does her thing. Take a look at all the cities built on the flood planes of major rivers and the cost of government backed flood insurance, clean-up, flood control, etc. I wouldn’t expect anything less than stupidity from the government on this issue, regardless of who is “in charge”.

  2. Alan–“Seems to me that we have a history … ” We sure do. We’re surprised every time the inevitable happens. Duh.
    Patty, you won’t find me arguing with you on that one.

  3. As an owner of land in beautiful western Montana, I’m pleased to see that people from all over the rest of the country upset about the Mark Rey-Plum Creek easement deal. Not only have the Bush Administration and the nation’s largest private landowner shown contempt for public opinion by negotiating for months behind closed doors, the Administration, in doing so, is also violating a series of federal environmental laws, most notably the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Forest Roads and Trails Act. If enforced, these laws would require formal environmental review with public input and would require the mitigation of impacts to endangered and threatened species. Instead, the Bush Administration, as it exits the stage with seeming contempt for the rest of us, prefers to give a major corporate constituent a parting gift that will add hugely to the assessed value of the real estate trust’s enormous land holdings.
    Rey’s legal justification for not complying with these laws is that the Forest Service, in coming to terms with Plum Creek, is not really doing anything. Thus, the elaborate legal the document addressing Plum Creek’s access rights merely “clarifies,” and does not “change,” the terms of long-standing easements defining the respective rights and obligations of Plum Creek and the Forest Service with respect to federal roads in remote forest locations. The trouble with this characterization is that the clarified (new) language clearly gives Plum Creek the right to use federal roads as de facto year-round driveways for high-end residential subdivisions in remote forested areas with severe wildfire risks. Traditionally, Plum Creek has used these taxpayer-subsidized roads to facilitate the logging of its vast timber properties and for no other purpose. Its new business plan, however, is to shift from timber production to residential development by selling off chunks of its vast nation-wide holdings, which include some 1.3 million acres in Montana alone. This plan has been somewhat thwarted by concerns raised by property purchasers and their brokers about how “good” the existing legal right of access is for many remote properties. Many federal roads are not plowed in the winter, which is a source of inconvenience for residential owners (though an ecological benefit to nearby wildlife). These federal roads will now have to be plowed to allow wealthy new second-homeowners access to their new trophy properties.
    The potential environmental effects of these proposed easement “clarifications” can hardly be overstated. These new easement document will facilitate the subdivision and fragmentation of millions of acres of forested lands across the Northwest, including areas occupied by endangered and threatened species such as lynx and grizzly bears, as well as areas identified as actual or potential critical habitat for such species. Currently, Plum Creek is asking for enhanced residential access throughout an area within a larger area known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecoregion, which is possibly the largest block of contiguous public land and wilderness in the continental United States. This Ecoregion supports a rich biodiversity of both plants and animals, including endangered and threatened species. These “clarifications” will facilitate sprawling real estate development and subdivisions across this Ecoregion that cannot be checked by local land use regulators.
    The inability for local governments in Montana to check this sprawl reflects the fact that Plum Creek and other large landowners and special interests in Montana have persuaded the pliable Montana Legislature to give them a veto power over local zoning decisions (see Mont. Code Anno., § 76-2-01(5)), notwithstanding a state constitutional mandate requiring the Legislature to “provide for the administration and enforcement” of the duty of the state and each person in Montana to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations” (Mont. Const., Art. IX § 1). This state legal scheme, of which the Forest Service must take note in considering the foreseeable effects of its own actions, essentially gives Plum Creek, and not the local governments, effective control over county zoning. In other words, if the Forest Service does not function as something of a “regulator” through its compliance with various federal environmental laws, no meaningful environmental review or protection will occur. The Forest Service, then, is the public’s only potentially effective check against Plum Creek’s unbridled self-interest.

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