Obama's Forest Service nominee is a surprise


The Obama administration just nominated the next direct political boss of the U.S. Forest Service -- a job with huge importance around the West.

And behold, the Obamanites didn't pick the environmental movement's candidate -- Chris Wood, a Trout Unlimited leader who helped run the Forest Service during the Clinton Administration.

They also didn't pick the consensus movement's candidate -- Dan Kemmis, a political statesman in Missoula, Mont.

Instead, they picked an effective unknown -- Homer Lee Wilkes, a Mississippian who lacks experience in forest issues that play out in the West.

And I think it could mean more federal deal-making in and around the forests ...

Associated Press reports:

Homer Lee Wilkes, the Mississippi state conservationist, was named late Tuesday as the nominee for undersecretary of Agriculture for natural resources and environment. He is the first black nominee for the post.

Wilkes is a 28-year veteran of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which focuses on farmland conservation.

... Wilkes earned his bachelor's, master's of business administration and doctorate in urban conservation planning degrees from Jackson State University and lives in Madison, Miss. ...

This nomination apparently breaks an Obama pattern. As I noted in a recent High Country News story, the administration is trying to fill at least 10 senior agency positions (just below cabinet level) with people who have ties to environmental groups or other conservation efforts.

And some top appointees above those 10 are wholeheartedly green (Steven Chu running the Energy Department and Jane Lubchenco running the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for instance).

The AP sketches some of the ways Wilkes doesn't seem qualified to run the national forest empire in the West:

… If confirmed by the Senate, Wilkes will face a list of tough national forest issues: the growing costs and threat of wildfire in a warming climate, widespread insect infestations killing wide swaths of pine forest, battles over putting millions of acres of roadless areas off-limits to logging, and whether to keep paying subsidies to rural timber counties.

… (This nomination) breaks a long-standing tradition of someone with a forest policy background.

… "As far back as anyone cares to recall, the undersecretary position was held by a Forest Service expert," said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (a green group).

… Stahl said choosing Wilkes was "an indication of the relatively low priority the Obama administration places on the national forests."

Meanwhile Greenwire, in The New York Times, reports praise for Wilkes and his 28 years in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS):

… Conservation advocates said that placing a career conservation-service employee could elevate the visibility of USDA's often overlooked role in conservation programs.

"It's interesting they would nominate someone who doesn't have a huge Forest Service background but who instead has a conservation background. I think it is a very good sign," said Brian Moore, who works on farmland conservation issues for Audubon. "NRCS is a key player in how the federal government works to do conservation; it will be good to raise its profile with someone in that slot who has an understanding of it."

With more than 11,000 employees, NRCS oversees more than $4 billion a year in payments or cost-share assistance for landowners to restore wetlands, install stream buffers, enrich wildlife habitat or manage waste.

… Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst with the Wilderness Society, said although his group is not personally familiar with Wilkes, they prefer his background to (Mark Rey, a former timber lobbyist who held the job during the Bush administration).

"I would say that unlike his predecessor, he's not coming into this job with a lot of baggage of having worked for the timber industry or having clear political biases about forest policy, so he's coming in with an open mind and a clean slate, and so we just look forward with working with him and improving the policy direction for the national forests," Anderson said.

I bet that if Wilkes is confirmed by the Senate, he'll push deal-making in and around the national forests, given his experience in handing out federal money to private landowners for conservation goals.

We'll see how it works out.


About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.