Update, 6-08-09: Wilkes has withdrawn as the appointee for the undersecretary position. White House spokesman Shin Inouye tells the Associated Press here that Wilkes withdrew for personal reasons.
President Barack Obama’s pick to oversee the Forest Service was a shocker. He didn’t look to a career Forest Service employee. He didn’t choose a forester or an environmental activist, either. He didn’t even pick a Westerner.
His choice of Homer Wilkes, a longtime but little-known Natural Resources Conservation Service official in Mississippi, surprised any who expected an environmental crusader charged with undoing the legacy of his predecessor, Mark Rey, a former timber lobbyist lambasted by environmentalists.
“I think it reflects the rather low priority that the Obama White House places on public lands, except in so far as they are accessible for energy production – green energy or otherwise,” says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “It also, I think, reflects the view that the administration has that agencies like the Forest Service, their primary function is as job creators and conduits for public money to be passed to private landowners.”
Wilkes, who, if confirmed, will be the first black to hold the office of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, is an unlikely pick to oversee a national forest system fraught with issues, including a massive beetle infestation, costly and devastating wildfires, plus controversies over gas drilling, logging and roadless protections. His forestry credentials are thin.
But as undersecretary, he would also oversee his own NRCS, an agency of 11,000 employees focuses on aiding farmers, which has long lived in the Forest Service’s shadows, even though it’s more in line with the Agriculture Department’s primary focus.
“I think they made a good choice,” says Brian Moore, director of budget and appropriations for Audubon, and a former NRCS staffer in the Clinton administration. “I think it shows conservationists and land managers that they’re serious about conservation issues. This fits right in there: to have someone who’s tied to conservation and not tied to a mining company or oil company or timber company in charge of mining, oil and timber. I think it’s a better representation of what taxpayers really want and much less a reputation of something big business has bought.”
Wilkes, the state conservationist in Mississippi, is a 28-year NRCS veteran. He previously served as budget officer for the service in Amherst, Mass., the assistant financial manager and fiscal specialist in Washington and chief of administrative staff for the NRCS South Technical Center in Fort Worth, Texas.
A resident of Madison, Miss., he holds a bachelor’s degree, master’s of business administration and a Ph.D. in urban conservation planning and higher education from Jackson State University.
“For nearly thirty years, Homer has worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service where he has been dedicated to conserving and improving the environment in multiple states,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in announcing the pick. “It would be a privilege to have a public servant like Homer join the USDA leadership team to help carry out President Obama’s vision of protecting our natural assets.”
Critics say that despite the agency’s name, the NRCS has little to do with conservation.
“Certainly that organization was more about conserving farm profits than conserving the environment,” says Becky Gillette, a Sierra Club activist in Arkansas and former co-chair of the Mississippi chapter. “I’m not impressed with the work they did in Mississippi.”
In his career there, Wilkes left little impression.
“He’s gone from one administration to another and sort of been under the radar screen,” says Larry Jarrett, a Mississippi activist who sits on a number of environmental organization boards and has been outspoken on forest issues. Even Mississippians aren’t sure what to expect from him in Washington, he says.
“I wouldn’t look for any major changes in policy regarding the Forest Service or NRCS unless it came from the administration,” Jarrett says. “I think his background is in the office administration end and not in the field.”
Environmentalists had hoped to see the post filled by Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited’s chief operating officer, who was a senior Forest Service policy advisor under President Bill Clinton. Wood, though, is a registered lobbyist, and the Obama administration has imposed limits on appointing lobbyists.
Serving under Wilkes would be Jay Jensen, who has already taken the position of deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment. Jensen has the traditional credentials Wilkes lacks. Since May 2005, he served as executive director of the Council of Western State Foresters/Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, based in Lakewood, Colo. He served earlier as the government affairs director for the collation, a federal-state government partnership.
He also served as senior forestry advisor for the Western Governors Association, where he led the biomass program, as lead forestry advisor to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture and as lead policy analyst for the National Association of State Foresters.
Vilsack praised his “combination of on-the-ground and government experience.”
“I’ll be looking to Jay’s leadership as we address the health of our forests,” he said. “This is a top priority for USDA because it relates to several critical challenges—the intensity of forest fires, climate change, biomass and renewable energy, clean water and revitalizing forest-dependent communities.”
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, says he’s optimistic about the two. In Mississippi, Wilkes is seen as a “good consensus builder,” Partin says, and forest issues there are not so different from those in the West. Jensen brings more solid forestry experience and heavy involvement in the West.
“I think it’s a workable team,” he says. “I think they’re individuals with a good strong background.”
The two inherit the controversies that swirled around Rey, blasted by environmentalists for what they saw as policies that favored the timber and energy industries. He was a target for lawsuits and was even threatened with jail time by a federal judge who complained he was too slow in complying with a court order demanding an environmental study.
Many of Obama’s top picks have had solid green credentials, including a slate of higher-ups in Interior, Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Wilkes’ environmental record is less clear.
Stahl says he doesn’t expect to see much change from Rey’s days. “Mark Rey didn’t have to lead the Forest Service,” he says. “He could simply be led by it. I think the same thing will happen now.”