USDA’s Mark Rey Foresees Passage of 2007 Farm Bill, Expansion of Forest Service Recreation Site Facility Master Plan

Washington, DC (March 26, 2007) - Mark Rey, Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, spoke at the March Recreation Exchange. He focused on the 2007 Farm Bill, calling it “the single most important piece of conservation legislation to be considered by the 110th Congress.” House and Senate bills based on the Administration’s January proposal will be introduced soon and Mr. Rey believes a 2007 Farm Bill will be enacted by this Congress because of support across the political spectrum.

Increased funding for conservation of rural working lands is a priority of the Administration’s proposed bill. Funding of $7.8 billion over ten years has been proposed for Conservation Title programs, an increase of 30% over the level of the current programs under 2002 legislation. Farm programs receive multi-year funding, much like transportation programs, rather than traditional annual appropriations. The conservation funding increases are targeted towards environmental quality, wildlife management and expanded development of agri-tourism by farmers diversifying into specialty crops and niche markets. Funding for conservation easements is also increased. The key goal is to slow development on rural lands and keep lands open for public benefits, including outdoor recreation, Mr. Rey explained. He noted that 192 million privately-owned acres receive conservation assistance through the Farm Bill – lands equivalent in area to the national forest system. In some cases, easements purchased under conservation programs provide permanent public recreation access.

The Administration’s proposal reflects extensive input from rural small farmers, ranchers and landowners who participated in 52 listening sessions held across the country. “The biggest threat to access,” he explained, “is intensive development which can cause incompatibility with recreation uses.” He is optimistic that even as population shifts intensify development pressures on rural lands, conservation programs can help keep private lands open to the public. Key contacts for the 2007 Farm Bill are Mr. Rey at the Department of Agriculture, the Conservation Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee (Tim Holden, Chairman; Frank D. Lucas, ranking minority member) and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry (Tom Harkin, Chairman; Saxby Chambliss, ranking minority member). Draft legislation is likely in both the Senate and the House by mid-May, so Secretary Rey urged recreation community leaders to weigh in soon.

Turning to the U.S.D.A. Forest Service Recreation Site Facility Master Planning process, Mr. Rey introduced Beth Pendleton, Deputy Regional Forester of the Pacific Southwest Region, who is chairing the review team which will re-cast the public outreach effort to broaden input on the planning process. Mr. Rey said that the initiative will be re-framed “to evaluate what we’ve got and what we need in the future based on an analysis of changing demographics - not just what it does look like, but what it should look like.” Asked if he is satisfied with the reduction in recreation program spending in the proposed 2008 budget, Mr. Rey said that the reality is that new programs “won’t be effectuated by new dollars, but by setting priorities and increasing efficiencies.” Over the last 20 years, he noted, the Forest Service, has invested its energy in local recreation partnerships that have resulted in the investment of non-federal funds in forest recreation programs. An audience member voiced a concern that the reduction in funding can itself preclude partnerships and that it is timely to look at alternative funding for Forest Service recreation programs that have health, education, transportation and criminal justice benefits.

Illustrating current budget realities, Mr. Rey noted the tremendous annual cost of fire suppression which drains the resources of the Forest Service. The build up of fuels on the National Forests and the increased incidence of urban-wildland interface are the two prime factors causing these higher costs. He explained that 85% of the fire suppression budget is spent on 2% of the fires, primarily because millions of people are moving into wildland areas to live. In 1990, he said, firefighting costs represented 14% of the Forest Service budget request. This year the percentage is 43%, rising to 46% in 2008.

Mr. Rey believes we will be dealing with level or declining budgets across the board for the foreseeable future. Noting that President Franklin Roosevelt had reduced domestic spending by 37% between 1940 and 1944, Mr. Rey concluded that “As long as we are a nation at war, we’re going to have to do the best we can with what we have.”

In closing, Derrick Crandall of ARC introduced Lyle Laverty, currently Director of the Colorado State Parks and a former Forest Service official. He has been nominated by the President to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

If you would like to contact Mr. Rey, he can be reached as follows:

The Honorable Mark Rey
Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Room 217E
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
202-720-7173; Fax 202-720-0632

Recreation Exchanges are held ten times annually and are made possible by the following sponsors:

American Association for Nude Recreation
American Horse Council
American Motorcyclist Association
American Petroleum Institute
Association of MarinaIndustries BoatUS
Bureau of Land Management
Bureau of Reclamation
Kampgrounds of America
Motorcycle Industry Council
National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Park Service
National Recreation and Park Association
Personal Watercraft Industry Association
Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association
Recreation Vehicle Industry Association
Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association
USDA Forest Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service