GRANTS PASS, Ore. - The Obama administration's pick to be the new agriculture undersecretary in charge of the U.S. Forest Service breaks a long-standing tradition of someone with a forest policy background.
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. The undersecretary also oversees the conservation service.
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.
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., with his wife and three sons.
"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.
The conservation group filed several lawsuits against the Forest Service while Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist, held the undersecretary job during the Bush administration.
Stahl said choosing Wilkes was "an indication of the relatively low priority the Obama administration places on the national forests."
Rey had tried to remake Forest Service policy to increase logging, particularly in the old growth stands held dear by environmental groups, but he was largely thwarted by federal court rulings.
Meanwhile, national forests were starved for funding for everything from trail maintenance to timber sale planning as half the agency's budget went to fight wildfires.
The front-runner for the job had been a more traditional candidate, Chris Wood, a former senior policy adviser to Clinton administration Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck.
But Wood was dropped after vetters learned he had been registered as a lobbyist by Trout Unlimited, the conservation group for which he works as chief operating officer.
With a few notable exceptions, Obama has ruled out appointing lobbyists to administration posts.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said he was confident after a short meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that he would provide firm direction to the Forest Service.
Partin said he expected Vilsack would increase funding for logging and thinning projects starved for money under the Bush administration, and work to resolve the problem of around $1 billion a year in wildlife spending taking money away from other priorities.
The Obama administration has backed a plan to create a separate fund for wildfires which experts say should help the agency keep to its planned budget more easily. Vilsack also announced this week that $224 million in federal stimulus funding was going to forest thinning projects.
Conservation groups were surprised by Wilkes' nomination, but encouraged by his background in conservation and Obama's commitment during the campaign to keeping logging out of millions of acres of national forest roadless areas.
Many scientists say those areas are more valuable as a source of clean water and wildlife habitat than for timber.
Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society said Obama has expressed support for keeping logging projects out of roadless areas many scientists deem more valuable for clean water and wildlife habitat, and he hoped Wilkes would do the same.
Anderson noted that administration lawyers last week asked for a delay in a lawsuit pending in Idaho, where environmentalists were trying to overturn the Bush administration's efforts to open roadless areas of national forests to logging, mining and other projects.