USDA: Career conservationist picked to oversee Forest Service

By Allison Winter and Noelle Straub
Washington, DC (May 6, 2009)- President Obama nominated a career Agriculture Department employee yesterday to a political post overseeing the Forest Service and farmland conservation programs. If confirmed by the Senate, Homer Lee Wilkes- currently the Mississippi state conservationist and a 28-year veteran of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)- would be undersecretary for natural resources and environment. The post directs the Forest Service and conservation projects at NRCS.

The selection of a career NRCS employee for the job is a shift from the previous two administrations. Jim Lyons, who had worked on forestry issues on Capitol Hill and for the Society of American Foresters, held the post during the Clinton administration. A former timber lobbyist, Mark Rey, held the job in the Bush administration.
In overseeing national forests for most of Bush’s presidency, Rey had a hand in controversial policies, faced worsening fire seasons, tussled with environmentalists and was even threatened with jail by a federal judge. Environmentalists saw Rey as a fox guarding the henhouse with forestry issues. But the outgoing USDA undersecretary shrugged off the clashes in an interview just before leaving office. “The person in this job is going to be a lightning rod for criticism irrespective of who that person is,” Rey said (Greenwire, Jan. 20).
It is unclear whether Wilkes, who thus far has had a quiet career in the federal government, will also become a “lightning rod” figure. He is unknown to many forestry, environmental and farmland conservation groups in Washington, DC. He has worked with NRCS in Mississippi, Massachusetts, and Texas. As Mississippi’s state conservationist, he took particular care for forest and wetlands restoration, according to wildlife groups familiar with the state. Wilkes has a master of business administration and a doctoral degree in urban conservation planning and higher education from Jackson State University in Mississippi. A biography from the Agriculture Department said he enjoys fishing and family activities with his wife and three sons.
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.
Ray Vaughan, executive director of WildLaw, said it concerns him that Wilkes does not have a forestry background. He called it an “interesting strategy,” when choosing someone to run two agencies, to pick someone from the smaller agency. “Hopefully, that won’t be a problem,” Vaughan said. He added that it is the first time since the mid-1980s that someone from NRCS has taken the job. “It’s clear that they’re trying to address the needs over at the NRCS, which has had some problems developing over time,” Vaughan said.
Recent audits from the USDA inspector general and a congressional investigation found shoddy accounting at NRCS and major gaps in the oversight of conservation contracts.
Praise for Wilkes
Although Wilkes may be unfamiliar with the Forest Service, Vaughan said, “People tell me he’s very smart and picks things up quickly.” Vaughan said the department also has other key advocates for forestry concerns. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has raised the profile of the Forest Service in many public remarks, and he named a forestry expert, Jay Jensen, to a key deputy post that would serve under Wilkes.
Vaughan, who works in Alabama, also praised the choice of a Southerner for the slot instead of the traditional Westerner, saying he will understand timber and soil conservation issues from the region.
Wilkes’ selection could have resulted at least partially from the Obama administration’s strict limits on appointments of registered lobbyists- a ban that leaves out many Washington insiders who would have been vying for the position. After Obama’s inauguration, it was widely rumored that the post would go to Chris Wood, the chief operating officer of Trout Unlimited. Wood is a registered lobbyist.
Other forest advocates were more enthusiastic about Wilkes. 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 Rey. “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.
He added that Wilkes’ lack of forestry experience does not raise concern. “There have been a number of undersecretaries who have not had forestry backgrounds in the past and have done an adequate job,” Anderson said. “I’m sure there will be others in the department who will be advising, and Secretary Vilsack has some past history on forest issues and roadless area protection, so it doesn’t really cause a lot of concern that he doesn’t have a background on forest policy per se. Hopefully, his experience with the NRCS reflects a strong environmental ethic; that’s what we’re really looking for.”
And Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said he is “very pleased” that the department is filling the slot with a career employee. He said Mississippi is a timber state with many of the same issues as the Northwest, so Wilkes will be able to understand management of the forest system.
Partin added that Wilkes’ nomination underscores the importance of Jensen, a Western forester, for USDA’s deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment. “I think those two nominees will really complement each other,” Partin said. “I think the secretary is very engaged with the Forest Service and wants to be part of their management strategy, and with Homer to some degree, and with Jay Jensen, I think it will probably be a formidable team.”
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