grand-mark-tarkin.jpgFor years, rural progressives have been trying to warn their neighbors that voting for Republicans meant voting for the rapine of the natural heritage in which they live. Most of those neighbors ignored them and voted Republican because they promised "jobs" and wrapped themselves in all-American values.

Now, as the Bush administration tries to inflict as much environmental havoc on the citizenry as it can on its way out the door, the chickens have come home to roost:

The Bush administration is preparing to ease the way for the nation’s largest private landowner to convert hundreds of thousands of acres of mountain forestland to residential subdivisions.

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. Plum Creek owns more than 8 million acres nationwide, including 1.2 million acres in the mountains of western Montana, where local officials were stunned and outraged at the deal.

"We have 40 years of Forest Service history that has been reversed in the last three months," said Pat O’Herren, an official in Missoula County, which is threatening to sue the Forest Service for forgoing environmental assessments and other procedures that would have given the public a voice in the matter.

The deal, which Rey said he expects to formalize next month, threatens to dramatically accelerate trends already transforming the region. Plum Creek’s shift from logging to real estate reflects a broader shift in the Western economy, from one long grounded in the industrial-scale extraction of natural resources to one based on accommodating the new residents who have made the region the fastest-growing in the nation.

Essentially, Rey is opening up millions of acres of forestland to development, which means that you’re going to see residential developments and McMansions sprouting up in the woods — not just in Montana but everywhere.

And the deal stinks like rotting trout. Just last week, Montana Sen. Jon Tester was demanding an investigation into these secret talks:

For the past two years, Tester said, the company has been negotiating behind closed doors with federal officials to expand the uses allowed under its road easements, which previously dealt only with logging. The proposed new easements would give Plum Creek the right to drive across public land for commercial, industrial or residential development, and according to Tester and several western Montana officials, would open up numerous tracts of land to real estate development.

With 1.2 million acres in its possession in western Montana, Plum Creek is the largest private landowner in the state.

Tester said he first heard of the negotiations two months ago, when local officials contacted his office in frustration because they had no ability to weigh in on public lands decisions affecting their counties.

Officials have said the deal, if it goes through, could put local and state government on the line for providing firefighting and other services to homes in wooded areas previously unimagined for real estate development.

Tester said he was especially concerned that negotiations have been going on in secret for so long.

“Transparency in government is pretty damned important,” he said.

Tester said he’s been “quizzing” Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey – who oversees the Forest Service – for two months to get details about the negotiations, to no avail.

He said he doesn’t know if the negotiations and road changes are necessarily illegal, but enough legal and other questions surround the changes that an impartial investigation is in order.

Tester and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., jointly asked the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to conduct the probe. In their Tuesday letter to the agency, the senators wrote that as recently as 2006 a Forest Service official in Seeley Lake concluded that such road easements were only for logging and could not be used for other purposes.

But two years later, in 2008, a Forest Service lawyer took exactly the opposite position, concluding that such easements were for whatever the timber company wanted to use them for.

Mark Rey, the mastermind of the deal, is the Grand Moff Tarkin of the West’s public lands. He has a long history — including major stints as a lobbyist for Northwest timber companies, including Plum Creek — that makes this deal reek of outright corruption.

But then, Rey has never been one to be much bothered by the niceties of the law or basic governmental decency. It nearly landed him in jail earlier when he faced a contempt-of-court citation for ignoring environmental laws and a judge’s orders to enforce them. He got off, but the judge handling the matter still blasted Rey and the Forest Service for their "systematic disregard of the rule of law."

Sound familiar?

Here’s hoping Tester is able to get his investigation.

Oh, and a note to Barack Obama, who’s campaigning in Montana this weekend: Dude, here’s a chance to solidify your lead there. Because all those rural folks who voted Pubbie the past decade are ready and willing to have their minds changed. If Obama were smart, he’d blast Rey and the Republicans with both barrels on this.

Because nothing is more likely to ruin their way of life than Mark Rey’s McMansions.