Last month, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack called a halt to the implementation of Bush administration roadless rules that would have overturned the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, an administrative action by President Clinton that protected 60 million acres of national forest land from logging and other development.
The Vilsack decision requires that the department approve individual plans in roadless areas, excepting Idaho which had already been allowed to implement its own plan. Now enter Colorado, and potential Forest Service head Harris Sherman. Sherman is currently executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Colorado has also been pushing ahead with it's own roadless plan.
Colorado Department of Natural Resources Deputy Director Mike King said that for now, the state will continue working on its rule, explaining that Colorado has long believed a state-specific rule is preferable for managing its resources. "We believe our rule does that and gives us a little flexibility to protect some of the economic drivers in Colorado," he said.
He said Colorado is getting close to completing its final recommendations on the state roadless rule. The state won't hold off on submitting them to USDA while the new directive is in place, he said, but it may wait until after USDA's new undersecretary for natural resources and environment is confirmed by the Senate.
The problem for many environmentalist, hunters, and fishers is that the Colorado plan, which has been largely shaped by Sherman, could seriously undermine conservation efforts in the state [sub. required]:
Continuing a process begun by his Republican predecessor, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) is asking for a state-specific rule. A state task force recommended opening about 300,000 acres to development -- including new roads for wildfire protection, utility facilities and minerals development -- while keeping more than 4 million roadless acres off-limits to energy development.
Michael Francis, director of the Wilderness Society's national forest program, said Sherman's work on the Colorado rule as part of the Ritter administration 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."
David Petersen, a Trout Unlimited official in Colorado who was on the state's roadless task force, also raised concerns about having Sherman in a position to help determine the administration's forthcoming roadless rule policy.
"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. "It just doesn't seem like a very good fit, and we're troubled by it."
Sherman has shown "iron-stiff persistence" in trying to push through the state roadless rule, Petersen said, which his group sees as "deeply flawed."
"We're wondering how someone who has worked against getting the 2001 rule reinstated in his home state is going to be able to work for it when he gets to D.C.," he said.
It's a valid concern, especially considering that Sherman has made it known that Colorado DNR plans to move forward with its state-based process, opting not to take the cover the Obama directive offered and instead pursue a proposal considerably less protective than the Clinton 2001 roadless rule (it even falls far short of Idaho's rule on roadless) with major exemptions for coal and oil and gas industry interests. On last read, it allows a major coal mine to be developed in a roadless area the Forest Service had called unsuitable for coal mining; approximately 100 new gas leases in roadless areas; and new dams and reservoirs in roadless backcountry, activities that would not go forward under the 2001 rule.