By MATTHEW DALY

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama Thursday chose a Colorado natural resources official to be the new agriculture undersecretary in charge of the U.S. Forest Service.

Harris Sherman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, will be nominated as undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, Obama said. The post requires Senate confirmation.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised Sherman for his dedication to conserving and improving the environment in Colorado and beyond.

"It would be a privilege to have a public servant like Harris join the USDA leadership team to help carry out President Obama's vision for protecting the natural resources we need for a healthy and prosperous America," Vilsack said.

Sherman, 66, is a member of Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter's cabinet and has overseen state efforts to develop a plan for so-called roadless areas in remote national forests. National and regional conservation, hunting and angling groups have denounced Colorado's plan as weaker than a 2001 rule developed by former President Bill Clinton.

Critics say the Colorado plan is unnecessary after a federal appeals court decision reinstated most of the 2001 federal policy last month.

Colorado started developing the plan several years ago after conflicting court opinions left the status of the 2001 rule -- and a 2005 modification approved by the Bush administration -- in doubt. Ritter has called the Colorado plan an insurance policy amid the legal uncertainty.

Critics argue the proposal would leave Colorado's roadless areas the least protected nationwide because it would allow temporary roads for wildfire prevention, expansion of existing coal mining and some utility infrastructure. State officials say the state plan makes improvements to the 2001 policy while making allowances for Colorado issues, including the wildfire risk from huge swaths of trees killed by bark beetles.

Ritter's spokesman Evan Dreyer said Colorado won't change its plan even if Sherman is confirmed.

Sherman is the second person picked for the undersecretary post. Homer Lee Wilkes, the Mississippi state conservationist, withdrew his nomination for the federal job in June. The White House said at the time it was for personal reasons.

Martin Hayden, vice president of the environmental group Earthjustice, called Sherman a dedicated public servant.

While his group believes the Colorado plan would undercut roadless protections in national forests, Hayden said environmentalists expect Sherman to carry out Obama's commitment to uphold and defend the 2001 Roadless Rule.

Suzanne O'Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, said she was pleased with the appointment.

While she has sometimes disagreed with Sherman, both he and his staff have been accessible and evenhanded in their approach, O'Neill said.

"I think they work really hard on these important wildlife matters. They listen carefully to all points of view," she said.

As a member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Sherman was the driving force behind revising and dramatically improving the state's permitting rules to include consideration of wildlife, public health and the environment, Hayden and other environmentalists said.

He's also credited with championing the successful effort to establish minimum in-stream flows in Colorado. The standards, fought by some water users, ensure that a certain amount of water is maintained in streams and rivers to protect wildlife habitat.

Ritter said Sherman understands the solemn responsibilities that come with his job, calling him "tireless in his dedication and commitment to leaving this state better than we found it."

Sherman, a lawyer, earned a bachelor's degree from Colorado College and law degree from Columbia University Law School. He was managing partner of the Denver office of Arnold & Porter before being named to his current post in 2007. Sherman also served as Colorado's natural resources chief under former Gov. Richard Lamm.

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Associated Press writers Judith Kohler and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this story.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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