DENVER - President Barack Obama tapped the head of Colorado's Natural Resources department to oversee the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday.
Obama intends to name Harris Sherman to be under secretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a job that includes oversight of national forests.
"For decades, Harris Sherman has been dedicated to conserving and improving the environment in Colorado and beyond," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a news release. "It would be a privilege to have a public servant like Harris join the USDA leadership team to help carry out President Obama's vision for protecting the natural resources we need for a healthy and prosperous America."
The job would put Sherman in a position to make decisions about the Village at Wolf Creek, gas and oil drilling and protection for backcountry forests.
Sherman has been one of the most high-profile members of Gov. Bill Ritter's Cabinet. He led the charge for Ritter's drive to overhaul the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and he now serves as chairman of that commission. He also leads the Interbasin Compact Committee, a group that is supposed to broker a deal on water resources between the Western and Eastern slopes.
Ritter broke the news at a Colorado Conservation Voters luncheon.
"We wish him great success," Ritter said.
After the luncheon, environmentalists lined up to offer congratulations to the smiling Sherman, who found out about the appointment earlier Thursday. Sherman, however, said he couldn't immediately comment on the nomination. He will need Senate confirmation before he can take the job.
Sherman has drawn the ire of some environmental groups for pushing the Colorado Roadless Rule, a plan that, in some cases, would allow roads to be built in backcountry areas that would have been banned by the national standard. The national rule's future is in limbo because two federal courts have issued competing rulings on it. The Obama administration has not released its own roadless policy yet.
Sherman's Department of Natural Resources recently opened the Colorado plan for another round of public comment, which closes next month.
In June, officials with the Wilderness Society and Trout Unlimited went public with their criticism of Sherman and urged Obama not to nominate him.
"We haven't agreed with him on everything, and certainly Colorado passing its own roadless rule is one of those issues," said Wilderness Society spokeswoman Suzanne Jones.
But Jones pledged her group would work well with Sherman on roadless forests and other issues, including climate change.
"We think he will be a good steward," she said.
By far Sherman's biggest fight, though, has been with the gas and oil industry. He led the effort to get the Legislature to revamp the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, then steered the commission through a yearlong process to pass environmental rules.
The Colorado Petroleum Association fought Sherman almost every step of the way, but on Thursday, its president had only kind words.
"We always had a good relationship with Harris," said Stan Dempsey. "He's certainly well-qualified, and I'm sure he'll serve the administration well."
Sherman served as director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in the 1970s under Gov. Richard Lamm. Between then and his appointment by Ritter, he was a partner at the Denver law firm Arnold & Porter, specializing in natural resources.
The USDA undersecretary position has been vacant since Obama took office. Mark Rey held the job during the Bush administration. Rey became a bogeyman for Colorado conservationists because of his support for the Village at Wolf Creek and for weaker protections for backcountry forests.
The appointment makes Sherman the latest Coloradan to join the Obama administration. Former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar now heads the Department of the Interior. Former state Senate President Peter Groff is director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education. And former state Sen. Jim Isgar is Colorado state director of the USDA's Rural Development office.
Salazar sent his endorsement in a news release Thursday.
"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. "President Obama and Secretary Vilsack have made a terrific choice in nominating him to serve our country as under secretary for Natural Resources and Environment."