LOS ANGELES - The Bush administration appears ready to push through a change in Forest Service agreements that would make it far easier for mountain forests to be converted to housing subdivisions.
Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist who heads the Forest Service, last week signaled his intent to formalize the controversial change before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.
As a candidate, Obama campaigned against the measure in Montana, where local governments complained of being blindsided when Rey negotiated the policy shift behind closed doors with the nation's largest private landowner.
The change 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.
"Just within the last couple weeks, they finalized a big subdivision west of Kalispell," said D. James McCubbin, deputy county attorney of Missoula County, where officials said the closed-door negotiations violated federal laws requiring public comment because the changes would affect endangered species and sensitive ecosystems. Kalispell is in Flathead County, where officials also protested.
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The uproar last summer forced Rey to postpone finalizing the change, which came after "considerable internal disagreement" within the Forest Service, according to a Government Accountability Office report requested by Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana. The report said 900 miles of logging roads could be paved in Montana and amending the long-held easements "could have a nationwide impact."
Tester and Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, then asked for an inquiry by the inspector general of the Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service.
"I think we need another set of eyes on it," Tester said. "I don't think that's running out the clock. If this is a good agreement, then what's the rush? Why do it in the eleventh hour of this administration?"
Probably because the proposal would die after Jan. 20. Obama sharply criticized Rey's efforts during the presidential campaign, seizing on concerns that a landscape dotted with luxury homes will be less hospitable to Montanans accustomed to easy access to timberlands.
"At a time when Montana's sportsmen are finding it increasingly hard to access lands, it is outrageous that the Bush administration would exacerbate the problem by encouraging prime hunting and fishing lands to be carved up and closed off," Obama said.
Rey vows to act soon. In a letter to Tester and Bingaman, he repeated his reasons for granting Plum Creek the changes, then closed with a promise to schedule briefings "to describe how we plan to proceed."