Longtime Hill staffer gets ag post — an agency hot seat

By Tiffany Stecker | 01/07/2015 01:24 PM EST

U.S. EPA has picked a Colorado state agriculture official and longtime Hill staffer to advise the agency on farm policy and serve as a liaison to farmers and ranchers.

U.S. EPA has picked a Colorado state agriculture official and longtime Hill staffer to advise the agency on farm policy and serve as a liaison to farmers and ranchers.

Ron Carleton, 60, has been deputy commissioner for the Colorado Department of Agriculture since 2012, but he spent more than three decades on Capitol Hill handling agriculture, energy, environment, water and land management issues.

Gwen Keyes Fleming, chief of staff for EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, announced the hire yesterday to agency staffers in an email obtained by Greenwire. Carleton spent six years as chief of staff to then-Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), whom he joined in the Colorado Department of Agriculture in 2012, more than a year after Salazar was appointed to head the department after his re-election loss.

Ron Carleton
Ron Carleton will advise EPA on agricultural issues. | Photo courtesy of the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

In an interview, Salazar described Carleton as kind and fair, saying he forged important relationships with the state Farm Bureau and cattlemen’s groups.

"He has a very good level head, he doesn’t think one way or another in terms of taking sides," said Salazar, the older brother of former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Carleton had worked under former Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.); Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.); former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas); and former Sen. Jack Schmitt (R-N.M.). This experience was valuable to Salazar, who came to Congress with relatively little Washington experience.

Carleton’s work in Colorado was instrumental in crafting and implementing regulations for the farming of hemp. He also worked on drought, farm bill implementation and food safety issues, as well as EPA’s controversial Waters of the United States proposal. He was chairman of the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council, which provides recommendations on increasing access to local foods.

Carleton, along with Salazar, has shown a "profound respect" for agriculturalists, said Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau and a board member of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The Farm Bureau has long butted heads with EPA, most recently on the Waters of the United States rule the agency co-proposed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The administration’s regulatory proposal would increase the number of streams and wetlands that currently receive automatic protection under the Clean Water Act.

Agriculture groups say the proposal as written could expose farmers and ranchers to hefty fines and legal infractions. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern, as well, with Republicans vowing to repeal the rule.

Both the national Farm Bureau and EPA have upped their communications on the rule to combat perceived "misinformation." Carleton would likely be a familiar face for agriculture in the agency, Shawcroft said, but the concerns lie in the text itself, not its communication.

Carleton replaces acting agricultural counselor Allison Wiedeman, who came from EPA’s Office of Water last March.

Wiedeman "has provided a steady bridge to our key stakeholders around the country as we strengthened important outreach on [the Waters of the Unites States rule]," Keyes Fleming wrote in the email.

Wiedeman was preceded by Sarah Bittleman, who now works as senior counsel for energy, natural resources and agriculture for the Senate Finance Committee (Greenwire, Sept. 10, 2013).

A long-standing position at EPA, the role of EPA agriculture adviser is often thankless, said Michael Formica, chief environmental counsel with the National Pork Producers Council.

"Most of the time you hear people complaining, and when you do a good job you don’t hear anything," he said.

Wiedeman was an effective liaison, Formica said, because of familiarity gained through her long experience as a career staffer in EPA’s Water Office. But an agriculture counselor with Hill experience, like Carleton and Bittleman before then, could be helpful as EPA seeks to finalize a workable rule.

"Sarah Bittleman was outstanding because she came from the Hill, she was a political animal who also knew where [EPA] had messed up," he said.

Carleton has taught public policy and administrative law classes at the School of Business at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., and is a member of the Virginia State Bar. He holds a bachelor’s from the University of Houston, a master’s from American University and a juris doctor degree from the George Mason University School of Law, according to LegiStorm. He is a fan of George Mason’s basketball team, per the website.