NOMINATIONS:

New Obama pick for USDA undersecretary criticized for roadless views

This story was updated at 3:50 p.m. EDT.

The Obama administration's new pick to lead the Forest Service and farmland conservation programs has drawn criticism from environmental and hunting and fishing groups concerned about his past role in controversial roadless rule decisions.

Harris Sherman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, has been nominated as Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment. The post directs the Forest Service and conservation projects at the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Sherman is a longtime associate of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who also was once executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. If confirmed, he would join a long list of Colorado officials with ties to Salazar who now help oversee the nation's public lands.

When Sherman's name was first floated as a possible pick in June, some conservation groups questioned the choice because of his efforts on roadless issues in Colorado. Yesterday, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership responded to Sherman's nomination by stressing the need for safeguarding roadless areas.

"We would like to congratulate Mr. Sherman and ask that he promote the long-term conservation of our backcountry hunting and fishing traditions, including upholding and defending the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which safeguards our nation's roadless areas, should he be confirmed as undersecretary," Joel Webster, associate director of campaigns for the TRCP Center for Western Lands, said in a statement.

Colorado is developing its own roadless rule to govern more than 4 million acres of national forest, including some of the nation's best known backcountry recreation areas. Only two states, Colorado and Idaho, embarked on a process the Bush administration established to petition for state-specific roadless protections. Critics say Colorado's draft rule is far less protective than Idaho's.

In June, Michael Francis, director of the Wilderness Society's national forest program, said Sherman's work on the Colorado rule makes him a poor choice for Agriculture undersecretary. "The process that Mr. Sherman has been leading in Colorado would essentially eviscerate the protections of the 2001 rule," Francis said. "I question whether he could do what the president would want him to do" (Greenwire, June 11).

But today, Suzanne Jones, the Wilderness Society's regional director in Denver, played down the differences and said the group will work with Sherman on roadless issues, among others.

"Harris Sherman has extensive conservation experience out West," Jones said. "That will be useful in D.C. We worked closely with him out here in Colorado. While we haven't agreed with him on every issue, most noticeably Colorado's decision to pursue a state-specific roadless rule, we look forward to working with him ... on a whole suite of issues. We trust he will be a good steward of our public lands and carry out President Obama's pretty clear vision for forest protection and management."

In June, David Petersen, a Trout Unlimited official in Colorado who was on the state's roadless task force, also questioned how Sherman would be able to advocate for the national rule after having worked for the state-specific plan in Colorado.

"It just troubles us and seems like a very unusual choice, an incongruous choice for a man whose job here in Colorado has been to fight off our consistent requests to lay aside the administrative state rule," Peterson said at the time. "It just doesn't seem like a very good fit, and we're troubled by it."

Yesterday Petersen directed questions to Trout Unlimited's chief operating officer, Chris Wood, who could not be reached by deadline.

USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver said the administration's roadless policy will not change. "President Obama and Secretary Vilsack have expressed their strong support for protecting roadless areas on our National Forests. Harris Sherman will be part of the effort to achieve that goal," Weaver said.

Other issues

Earthjustice Vice President Marty Hayden said that while Sherman's biggest challenge will be the roadless rule debate, he will also be charged with helping chart a new direction for the federal forest planning rule, which dictates how 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands develop individual forest plans. "That's the big rulemaking that awaits them," Hayden said.

A Bush-era revision of the planning rule spent years in litigation. A federal judge sided with environmentalists in June and threw it out, ruling that the Forest Service had failed to analyze the effects of removing requirements guaranteeing viable wildlife populations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last month said the Obama administration would not appeal the judge's ruling and would opt instead to initiate a new planning process that will serve to integrate all the administration's priorities, from wildlife conservation to economic concerns to collaboration with stakeholders (E&ENews PM, Aug. 14).

Sherman needs to move quickly to help the Forest Service adopt a new planning rule, said American Forest Resource Council President Tom Partin, explaining that many forest plans have been "in limbo" for years while the debate over the Bush forest planning rule was being fought out in the courts.

"We can limp along with existing forest plans, but forest conditions have changed so much over the last 15 years, they have to take a look at the existing science," like the impacts of forest fires and beetle infestations on forest resources, Partin said.

Partin said Sherman's long history with resource management in Colorado reflects Vilsack's trend in recent months of picking qualified individuals for key positions in USDA, in contrast to the polarizing appointments in past administrations. "The people that he has appointed don't have an agenda; they look at the land and determine how it needs to be managed," Partin said.

Background

Sherman is Obama's second pick for the undersecretary post. Homer Lee Wilkes, the Mississippi state conservationist, was nominated in May for the post but withdrew his name from consideration, citing family and financial reasons.

Under the Bush administration, the position was held by Mark Rey, who generated significant controversy during his tenure. Yesterday, Rey praised his potential successor. "I think he is eminently qualified and will do a fine job," Rey said. "I wish him the best in his new endeavor."

Salazar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also praised the nomination.

"In the many years I have worked with Harris Sherman I have known him to be a top-notch public servant, a champion for Colorado's land, water, and wildlife, and a problem-solver," Salazar said in a statement. "President Obama and Secretary Vilsack have made a terrific choice. ... His vision for stewardship will be a great asset to our nation in this new role."

Sherman also served as Colorado DNR director once before, under Gov. Richard Lamm (D). Between his two stints as DNR director, he served as managing and senior partner of Arnold & Porter LLP's Denver office.

Currently, Sherman is also director of compact negotiations for the Colorado Interbasin Compact Commission, chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and co-chairman of the Governor's Forest Health Advisory Council. He has previously served as chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, the Denver Regional Air Quality Council and as a commissioner of both Mines and the Denver Water Board.

Sherman graduated from Colorado College and earned his law degree from Columbia University Law School.