A Conversation with Under Secretary Sherman

Harris Sherman HS WebAll users and beneficiaries of the National Forests have a stake in the outcome of these issues. If we can resolve the issues facing the health of our watersheds, there will be huge benefits for all of us.

As Carpe Diem West’s Healthy Headwaters project has gained momentum over the past 12 months, we’ve come to appreciate the increasing degree to which the US Forest Service is focusing its leadership and expertise on the growing threats to the health of the watersheds that supply much of the American West with its drinking water. In October 2009, Congress confirmed a new person for the job of overseeing the work of the US Forest Service and the Natural Resource and Conservation Service: Under Secretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman.

A lifelong Westerner, Sherman is no stranger to the world of water. He’s twice served as Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, was the Chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, has been commissioner on the board of Denver Water, and has practiced natural resource law as a private attorney. In this interview we get Under Secretary Sherman’s perspective on solutions to the challenges facing the West’s watersheds.

Why have water issues been such a central part of your career?

Water is one of the defining natural resource issues of our time. I’ve always been fascinated by how we can improve and strengthen our management of water. It is a complicated, often contentious, puzzle. How we provide this limited resource, in terms of both quantity and quality, to meet the expanding needs of cities, farms, manufacturing and energy industries, and other consumptive uses while at the same time protecting watersheds, fish and wildlife, recreational needs and the overall environment is not an easy trick but certainly one that requires creativity and new solutions.

As a lifelong Westerner, do you find that you see water issues in a different way?

Without question, growing up in the West has shaped my views. Everyone in the West has experienced the scarcity of water at some point in their life. The combination of population growth, climate change, and drought underscores the critical role which water and forests will play.

You helped shape the new Forest-to-Faucet partnership between Denver Water and the Forest Service, which provides joint funding of $32 million for restoration projects in six municipal supply watersheds. What do you see as the opportunities for expanding this model across the West?

The partnership that Denver Water and the Forest Service have forged is a model for the future. Half the drinking water in the United States comes from forests, both public and private. The health of our forests is critical to the quality of our drinking water. Unfortunately, many of our forests are facing significant problems – in the West alone, we have 21.5 million acres of dead trees from bark beetles and other diseases, affecting 12 states. The threat of catastrophic fire in these forests, with resulting impacts to surface and groundwater, reservoirs, and water treatment facilities, is real. Municipal water providers, such as Denver Water, have spent tens of millions of dollars treating the aftermath of such fires. Hence, the ability to provide clean water to our cities will depend upon restoring these forests. And the Forest Service alone cannot solve this problem – it is simply too massive. With tightening budgets, we are forced to do more with less. We need to forge new partnerships with the beneficiaries of the National Forests.

The Denver partnership sets a template that allows the community to be proactive and deal with the problems at the front end rather than after a catastrophic fire.  Examples like this can prove useful to other communities throughout the U.S.

In Carpe Diem West’s work, one question people keep returning to is the question of scale. The Denver Water partnership seems like a great start, but the scale of problem across the West will require large infusions of money. Where might that funding come from?

The federal government has a major responsibility to provide many of these resources. The current federal budget for forest restoration is well in excess of $1 billion and yet because of the magnitude of the problem, we will need to better prioritize our efforts and supplement our work with other contributions through partnerships with governments, water districts, water providers, recreational users, utility companies and others. Some contributions may be in the form of money, others in the form of volunteer activities. There will be a spectrum of opportunities. All users and beneficiaries of the National Forests have a stake in the outcome of these issues. If we can resolve the issues facing the health of our watersheds, there will be huge benefits for all of us.

How will the proposed planning rule the Forest Service is working on help downstream communities protect their water supplies?

Secretary Vilsack has made water one of the central features of his conservation program at USDA. The national planning rule is a critical document that sets the stage for how our National Forests and Grasslands will be managed.  Water will be an essential component of all future forest plans. We anticipate the draft rule will be available for review in January, and we welcome public comment.  We expect to have a rule finalized by December 2011.

How can Carpe Diem West help promote these efforts to get downstream users involved in protecting the watersheds where their drinking water comes from?

Carpe Diem West is performing an important role. It is providing a forum where diverse interests can come and explore collaborative solutions. I see Carpe Diem West playing a very important organizational role working with other NGOs and agencies to create the relationships that will allow us to restore resiliency to our watersheds.

Harris Sherman is the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at USDA, overseeing the United States Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Before joining USDA, Sherman served as the Executive Director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, under Governor Bill Ritter where he oversaw Colorado’s water, energy, wildlife, parks, forestry, and state lands programs. At an earlier point in his career, he was Colorado’s DNR Director under Governor Richard Lamm. 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.

Between his two stints as 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. He has served on a wide variety of public and non-profit boards including the Denver Water Board, the National Advisory Board for Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy, and Colorado College.


Image – kurdistan / Shutterstock.com


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