The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Obama's USDA: Undersecretary Harris Sherman


Fifth of an occasional series of U.S. Department of Agriculture interviews


The size and importance of farm bill conservation programs were a surprise to Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman when assumed his position in 2009. In an exclusive interview, Sherman has told The Hagstrom Report that these programs “must” be maintained in the 2012 farm bill.

“I had no idea of the scope and magnitude of a number of these critical stewardship conservation programs,” said Sherman, who has a long history as a public official and natural resources lawyer in Colorado.

Charged with maintaining the health of American land through sustainable management, Sherman oversees the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service, two revered USDA agencies that are run by chiefs rather than deputy undersecretaries. Sherman also works with officials at other federal agencies on development of administration-wide conservation policy.

Sherman said he is proudest of the conservation efforts the Obama administration has launched to restore the Chesapeake Bay and other large areas because they will bring income to farmers as well as provide cheaper ways to clean up the environment. He said he hopes that the Forest Service planning rule on which he is working will last for decades.

Sherman served as director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources twice, from 2007 to 2009 under Gov. Bill Ritter, and in the 1970s, under Gov. Richard Lamm. Between his two stints as Colorado Department of Natural Resources director, Sherman was the managing partner of the Denver Office of Arnold & Porter, an international law firm, where he specialized in natural resources, water, energy, public lands, and American Indian law.

Sherman has also served as chairman of the Colorado Oil & Gas Commission, commissioner of Mines, chair of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, and chair of the Denver Regional Air Quality Council. He has served on a wide variety of public and non-profit boards including the Denver Water Board, the national advisory board for the Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy, and Colorado College. He received his B.A. degree from Colorado College and his law degree from Columbia University Law School.

HAGSTROM: My readers probably know the two chiefs under you — Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell — better than they know you. Since their responsibilities are more apparent, could you generally describe what you do in this job?

SHERMAN: I would say that this is a multifaceted job. One part of my job is to oversee the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the United States Forest Service. In that sense, I am working with the agencies to make sure that the president’s agenda, secretary’s agenda, and my agenda are carried out.

But in addition to that, I translate our programs, our budget, and our agenda to Congress. I work extensively with the White House on interdepartmental projects, and I [am] actively involved in coordinating interdepartmental initiatives with specific agencies or other departments, depending on what the program is. So, for example, we work extensively out of this office with [the Environmental Protection Agency], with the Department of Interior, [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers, and so forth.

I guess it’s fair to say that I am called upon frequently to represent the department in reaching out to stakeholders, states, local governments, depending on what the issue is.

Harris Sherman
HAGSTROM: How are intergovernmental coordination and interagency coordination going?

SHERMAN: I think it’s going very well. On a daily basis, there is interaction between my counterparts, Interior or EPA, and occasionally that will involve agency heads being involved or specific program managers working with us.

I would be happy to give you examples of that.

The Forest Service and [the Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department division] are working together on a multitude of projects across the country. Some of these relate to fire preparation and suppression activities. Some relate to forest health and restoration initiatives. We’re working on biofuels and bioenergy projects together.

With EPA, we frequently are exploring what we call “certainty” or “safe harbor agreements” for the benefit of individual farmers or ranchers, same thing with the Department of Interior through the Fish and Wildlife Service. We are working on environmental markets with EPA and the Corps of Engineers.

Then we have these very broad initiatives, such as the America’s Great Outdoors, a presidential initiative. With my colleagues from Interior, EPA, and the Council on Environmental Quality, we participate in some 50 hearings around the country at the Cabinet or sub-Cabinet level, listening to people’s thoughts and ideas about how our public land programs, private land programs can become stronger, more focused, and how we can connect people to the outdoors.

Often people perceive that there is substantial stovepiping occurring, but in reality, coordination is reasonably good between agencies.

HAGSTROM: There was a big announcement ceremony at Interior when the administration launched the America’s Great Outdoors initiative. Is it rolled out?

SHERMAN: The interagency team finished a report. That report was presented to the president. The president released the report about two months ago [see link at bottom], and now we are in the process of implementing a series of recommendations contained in the report. Part of them will relate to the budget, part will relate to what we can do administratively, and part will relate to what sort of statutory changes are necessary. But it is a blueprint for where the Obama administration would like to go with connecting people to the outdoors.

HAGSTROM: If we could go all the way back, tell me how you got interested in natural resources and natural resources law.

SHERMAN: I have always been an outdoor person. I grew up in Colorado. From an early age, I was camping, fishing, hiking, skiing, jeeping. I spent a great deal of my youth in the outdoors, and my connection to nature is very important to me personally.

[When] I finished law school, Congress was in the initial stages of developing an environmental program for the United States. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act were in their initial stages.

Through good fortune, I got in on the ground floor of following and then participating in the implementation of these early steps in environmental efforts. [In 1975] I was asked by the new governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm, to become his director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. I was 32 years old at the time.

During his first and early second terms, I ran the state’s natural resources programs, which meant that I oversaw water, energy, mining, wildlife, parks and state lands, and forestry. The Carter water hit list was taking place. The Synthetic Fuels Corporation was being proposed. Oil shale was once again being mentioned as a future energy resource for the country. I was there during a challenging and interesting period.

When I finished that, I went back to practicing law with a national [Washington-based] law firm, Arnold & Porter. I started their office in Denver. The practice in Colorado was principally a natural resources practice. It was national in scale, so I got involved in a variety of projects all over the United States dealing with water, natural resources. One of my subspecialties has been the rights of the American Indians, so I was heavily involved in that, representing many Indian organizations, tribes.

I had a diverse and, as I say, exciting practice. I did that for almost three decades when the new governor of Colorado at the time, Bill Ritter, had just been elected [in 2006], and he asked me if I would once again become director of natural resources. So I am the only person to have ever held a job twice. I’ve held it longer than any other person. I guess it was almost eight years. I had the opportunity starting in 2007 through 2009 to assist the governor in managing the state.

In the latter part of 2009, I was asked by the Obama administration [to be nominated as undersecretary]. Actually, I’ve had a very stable employment career. I had essentially two jobs for about 35 years, eight years with the state of Colorado and about 28 years with Arnold & Porter.

HAGSTROM: There is always a tension between the use of government resources to improve the situation and the more EPA-like approach of regulation and the Interior approach of taking land out of private hands. Do you have a philosophy of what is appropriate, which of these approaches?

SHERMAN: I think we need a diverse toolbox to ensure successful conservation. Voluntary conservation can be a powerful tool. There will be a place for regulation. There will be a place for government-sponsored programs. There will be a place for environmental markets. We need all of these tools to advance our programs. They can work in conjunction with each other if it’s done properly.

HAGSTROM: Since you’ve been involved on both sides of this, what is your approach to the continual tension between business development on these lands and conservation or environmental protection?

SHERMAN: I’m a great believer in having a steady policy for natural resource management. The pendulum swings back and forth, and that does a great disservice to all the stakeholders and it does a disservice to the agencies.

One of our goals here at the USDA is to reach out thoughtfully to the public, get a wide spectrum of public input into what our rules and regulations [and] programs should look like, and then formulate programs and policies that are thoughtful, that address future challenges, and have broad consensus.

A perfect illustration of this would be the [U.S. Forest Service] national planning rule. This is truly a bottom-up effort. We have had 40 meetings nationally, received 26,000 comments, and from that input, we drafted a proposed ruling.

We’re in the final stages of getting comment on it now, but it is our hope that we will have a rule that will be in place for decades. In contrast to the ping-pong approach of the previous planning rules, which have changed with every successive administration, which have been litigated constantly, we’re hoping to have broader consensus, broader support, and a more stable ruling.

Similarly with many of our conservation programs and efforts with NRCS and the Forest Service, we are working to building a consensus where steady solid natural resource policy, conservation policy will be in place.

HAGSTROM: When do you hope to finalize the rule?

SHERMAN: The comment period closes May 16th. Our goal is to have a final rule by the end of the year.

This is an important rule because it sets a template for the individual forest plans throughout our 193-million-acre system, which is by the way 9 percent of the [U.S.] land mass. Then all actions within each of those forest plans have to be consistent with the rule. So it has enormous significance for future management of federal lands.

HAGSTROM: Is there anything here that you’ve had to recuse yourself from because of either your practice or your role as the state resources director?

SHERMAN: I have recused myself from a review of the Colorado roadless rule, which was just released for comment by the secretary, because I was the author of the proposed roadless rule to the Department when I was with the state of Colorado.

I recused myself from the Snowbowl snow-making project in Arizona because I had previously worked for a number of tribes that were interested in that project as well as doing work for the ski industry.

HAGSTROM: When you recuse yourself, who manages the projects?

SHERMAN: When I recuse myself, I am walled off from participating in any discussions or evaluations of a proposed project. Typically, my responsibility will be assigned to my deputy or to someone in the secretary’s office.

HAGSTROM: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told the North American Agricultural Journalists that he was concerned Congress was depleting a fire suppression account as part of the settlement of the fiscal year 2011 budget, and said this will make it more difficult to accomplish longer term forest protection because you were planning to use some of that money for it. How are you going to handle this loss of resources and also deal with these longer-term forest protection questions?

SHERMAN: We are seeing a reduction in our 2011 fire suppression budget of about $400 million. That’s a significant amount of money. We have to hope for a relatively benign summer where we do not see large and numerous catastrophic fires. The weather conditions will be very important to how well we fare in the coming year.

If we are facing a series of catastrophic fires, we must allocate the resources necessary to contain these fires. If the budget does not provide adequate resources to do that, we will go back to Congress for a supplemental request, but in these budgetary times, it’s hard to predict what the outcome of that will be. Timing is a very important consideration because frequently we need additional fire funds immediately. We have to draw resources from our other programs to address these needs, and unless we get some fairly quick response from Congress, the effect of this is to deplete and reduce all of our other programs.

These budgetary changes come with consequences. We’re again hopeful that the fire season will not be extreme, but if it is, we will have to marshal the resources necessary to deal with the situation.

HAGSTROM: In your responsibilities as undersecretary, do international forestry issues also come up? Are there particular international forestry issues that are important at this time?

SHERMAN: The Forest Service clearly has a responsibility to work with other countries on forestry issues.

For example, Mexico has been experiencing catastrophic fires, and we have been assisting to a limited extent with consultations and providing equipment. Israel had a series of large fires last year where U.S. equipment and personnel were involved. We are working with countries all over the world on climate-related research and discussions of how best to mitigate and adapt to climate conditions as it affects — so our international program is important.

Personally, to date, I have not had the time to deal with these issues, but that isn’t to say that the agency is not spending a certain amount of effort on this. We work very closely with [the U.S. Agency for International Development] and the State Department. I think there has been a healthy exchange of research programs with other countries.

HAGSTROM: When you think about the first two years that you have been here, what are you the proudest of?

SHERMAN: I am very pleased with the role that USDA has played with respect to conservation issues. Politically, people have not thought of USDA as being in the middle of conservation, natural resource policy, but Secretary Vilsack and this department are very focused on the critical importance of water and preserving soils, protecting wildlife habitat on public and private lands, climate change, creating jobs through conservation to help stabilize rural communities.

There is a new level of focus and activism in these areas that the department has never seen before. I think it will serve the American public well.

The America’s Great Outdoors initiative was jointly led by USDA, and I feel very privileged to have an opportunity to be one of this department’s leaders in moving this effort forward. We have reached out to the American public to discuss old and landscape-scale visions for conservation that cut across public land and private land, and are looking at a new way of approaching conservation that is less based on individual acts of conservation, which I sometimes call “random acts of conservation.” Instead we’re focused on larger landscape efforts.

In NRCS, for example, we’re involved in the Chesapeake Bay restoration, which involves six states. We’re involved in the Mississippi River restoration, which involves 13 states. We’re involved in the Great Lakes initiative, [which involves eight states]. We have a sage grouse initiative in the West to protect this bird from being listed as a threatened and endangered species, which involves 12 western states. We’re involved in the Gulf Coast with six states to address hypoxia in the Gulf Coast, all the cleanup that’s going on relative to the oil spill. The bay delta in California —we’re working on this broad effort to figure out the interrelationship with water for agriculture and water for conservation. Puget Sound near Seattle.

I’m also proud of how USDA is thinking about how to connect people to the outdoors with a major focus of the Forest Service and NRCS on recreation, on giving young people the opportunity during the summer to work outdoors, where new skills of conservation in green building help foster careers and natural resource management for the Forest Service, NRCS. This is critically important for the future of the country, and we’re on the cutting edge of making opportunities available for young people, for a diverse population of young people. We are reaching into urban communities, inner city communities, to try to make good things happen there, so that’s been very gratifying.

And I’m very excited about this planning rule that I just mentioned to you as kind of a new template for the Forest Service. It will approach bringing together these critically important principles of restoring and establishing resiliency of our forest, addressing climate change, protecting water resources.

And by the way, apropos to that, the national forests provide drinking water for 66 million Americans, and the private forests and the public forests together provide half the drinking water in this country. Forests play a key role in providing clean water. Historically, people have not connected the dots between forests and clean water. We’re connecting the dots, and we’re reaching out to the private sector, the business community, the [nongovernmental organizations] to work with us on fostering healthy forests and in turn better water quality, better water availability.

I have mentioned wildlife. I’ve mentioned recreation. These are all in addition to the food and fiber products that come off our forests. When you talk about resiliency of our forests, we’re talking about removing hazardous fuels. It involves thinning of our forests because our forests right now are dense. They’re old. They’re monolithic. What we need to do is have greater diversity in our forests, more space for trees to grow. We need to reduce the fire risks. All of this produces multiple benefits, including producing wood for homes, for biofuels, and for other purposes.

HAGSTROM: You’ve mentioned several times these kind of interactions between public land, private land, state land. When the outdoor initiative first came out, I was talking about it with an environmentalist who said the hard thing to deal with are the legal questions — people who are private landowners being concerned about people coming onto their land.

As a lawyer or as an undersecretary, what are your views on how you can deal with these questions when you have these differing jurisdictions?

SHERMAN: You must respect private property rights, and we do respect private property rights, but on the private side, we have a variety of voluntary programs where people can join us if they wish to undertake good conservation, good stewardship of their lands.

NRCS, for example, has a variety of easement programs. These are programs where the agency will work with the landowner on a voluntary basis to establish an easement, to protect a wetland, or to protect farmland or a private forest. In return for that, the landowner is compensated for that protection.

Hypothetically, if I am an owner of a farmland and I can establish wetlands or protect wetlands, I could enter into a permanent easement with NRCS or a 30-year agreement with NRCS. Those lands for that period of time will be there for the purpose of providing wetlands, which, of course, provides a whole suite of environmental benefits for the land. It stores water, it releases water, it provides for wildlife habitat, it cleans water, and so forth. If you have farmland that is subject to development pressure and you’re trying to preserve farmland, NRCS has easement programs where a farmer can work with us to enter into a conservation easement that will allow the farmer to stay there, farm the land, but it will be for that purpose as opposed to being subdivided and developed.

This doesn’t require public access. Public access for these easements is usually not required as part of the agreement, but it does preserve certain important public benefits. As far as providing assistance to a landowner to better utilize water, to reduce nutrients or phosphorous to streams and river, to better provide shade trees to cool rivers, to provide forest for wildlife habitat, we have a whole series of programs. They are on a voluntary basis. We provide technical assistance and financial assistance to make these things happen.

Again, nobody is being forced to do this. This is strictly on a volunteer basis, but in this country today, the greatest risk to the land is to our private lands. One-third of all the development in the history of the United States has occurred in the last 25 years, and every year now, we’re seeing between 1.5- to 2 million acres of land being taken out of agriculture and private forestry. These are often our most important prime agricultural lands.

NRCS is in the forefront of trying to protect these lands from fragmentation and development. We do it through a variety of financial incentives, such as easement agreements and environmental markets.

An environmental market is where a landowner does something above and beyond what he is required to do to protect the environment. For that activity, he may get a credit which he can then sell to a third party that needs that credit.

I will give you an example. In Oregon, there are several rivers where the salmon are trying to spawn. The water temperature now is too warm for the salmon to swim up the river to their spawning beds.

EPA and the state environmental agencies are requiring that the local communities along the river install refrigeration units in their waste treatment plants, so that the discharge to the river of the water will be cooled enough to allow the salmon to swim upstream. These are very expensive projects.

NRCS, working with local farmers and watershed organizations, has proposed an alternate plan, which is for farmers and ranchers upstream of these communities to plant shade trees along the river, which would have the effect of cooling the river to a greater extent than the refrigeration units that would be installed at the waste treatment facilities. The cost of doing that would be much less than having to put in these very capital-intensive technological solutions.

The benefit provides additional income to farmers who participate in the program. It provides wildlife habitat along the stream because you have the shade trees now, and it provides a buffer that filters out nutrients and phosphorous from getting into the river. It’s a win-win situation that builds off of America’s green infrastructure.

We’re doing programs like this in other parts of the country. In the Ohio River Basin now, there is a discussion of power plants, which are preparing for the eventuality that they may be required to reduce nutrients from their discharges into the river. These businesses are looking potentially at going upstream to farmers and working with farmers on better practices for applying water, applying nutrients, fertilizers to the land, where the effects of how those lands are managed would in turn reduce the contribution that those ranches and farms would make to the river. [That] would make it unnecessary for these power plants to install expensive equipment at their plants to reduce nutrients. The farmers would benefit from that because this would be an additional source of income to them, all of this again on a voluntary basis.

HAGSTROM: Would the farmers be provided the trees and also paid a fee for allowing them to grow on their land?

SHERMAN: In the case of Oregon, the landowner would agree to [set aside] land on each side of the river for the purpose of growing shade trees and would have to maintain those shade trees for 30 years or whatever the period of time is.

But the farmer would be compensated for that. To dedicate a portion of his land for this purpose, to plant the trees, to maintain the trees over a period of time, every year the farmer would be compensated for doing that. [It] would cost in this case the cities downstream much less money than if they had to install refrigeration units on their waste treatment plant.

HAGSTROM: Will the local governments pay for this, or will the federal government pay?

SHERMAN: The local governments would have to pay for it through their waste water [programs]. On the Ohio River, those power plants are often private businesses. In order to more effectively utilize their resources, instead of putting all this extraordinary equipment on their power plants for discharges into the river, they would take a portion of that money and pay the upstream farmer to improve irrigation practices and nutrient management practices.

Environmental markets is an emerging field, and it’s one that USDA is taking a lead on.

HAGSTROM: When you first said “environmental markets,” the first thing that came to my mind is cap and trade for carbon emissions.

SHERMAN: Well, cap and trade is a form of environmental markets. As you know, it’s a subject that right now is not likely to go anywhere.

These are alternative forms of environmental markets that deal with areas where there is, I think, much greater acceptance of the importance of addressing these issues.

HAGSTROM: What's your analysis of the importance of the farm bill conservation programs?

SHERMAN: When we were traveling across the country on America’s Great Outdoors, we heard many comments about the Land and Water Conservation Fund [a program run by the Interior Department's National Park Service that provides matching grants to state and local governments for the acquisition of parkland and facility development] and how important it was to have full funding [of it]. I believe the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a very important program that deserves to be fully funded, but I think sometimes people do not appreciate the extraordinary importance of the farm bill programs.

The farm bill’s programs in many respects are far broader and more extensive. The 2012 farm bill is an important part of evolution of the nation’s conservation program. [With full funding] the Land and Water Conservation Fund would be $900 million. This past year, it’s been at about $500 million, and with the 2011 budget, it’s actually going to go down, I suppose. [Farm bill programs if you include the Conservation Reserve Program] are in the neighborhood of probably $7 billion.

The easement programs, the conservation programs such as [the Environmental Quality Incentives Program] and [the Conservation Stewardship Program] — you probably have several billion dollars there. Under [the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle up to 32 million acres] you’ve got over $2 billion there.

SHERMAN: The CSP program now — we’re taking [in] about 12 million acres a year. We enrolled 25 million acres in and we’re adding 12 million each year. By the end of 2012, we’re going to be close to 50 million acres enrolled in that program, which will then be the largest conservation program in the United States.

HAGSTROM: That’s working lands, right?

SHERMAN: It’s working lands.

And then you have the Wetlands Reserve Program, which under the president’s budget is close to $800 million. We now have over 2 million acres of land involved there toward the cap of 3.1 million acres.

The most important expansive environmental programs, conservation programs in America are in agriculture. They’re important to the nation’s water resources, recreation, wildlife. They’re important to job stability and community stability. They don’t get the attention they deserve. Again I’m not minimizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund because it’s very important, but we have to also focus on these farm bill programs. They are so vital to rural America and to the well-being of [the] earth and America.

I’m really struck by these conferences about how urban America can improve their drinking water and recreation water, but there’s not an acknowledgement or recognition of where that water comes from. It’s coming from agriculture. It’s coming from forests and mountains. It’s connecting the dots, and it’s kind of what I’ve been doing here. One of the benefits of spending as much time as I have in natural resources is to understand to a certain extent how you connect dots.

HAGSTROM: From the way you have been speaking, I am curious if you found the importance of the farm bill programs a bit of a surprise to you when you took this job?

SHERMAN: Yes, it was. I had no idea of the scope and magnitude of a number of these critical stewardship conservation programs.

HAGSTROM: I take it you’re going to try to keep up these resources in 2012?

SHERMAN: We must.

HAGSTROM: If you look at the next two years, what would you most like to accomplish?

SHERMAN: Our hope is that we’re going to be able to implement the programs that I’ve addressed. It is one thing to propose programs; it’s another to implement them.

America's Great Outdoors – February 2011 Report

Executive Summary
Youth Report
Full Report