Governor passes on Russell George |

Governor passes on Russell George

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs correspondent

Aspen, CO ColoradoGov.-elect Bill Ritter has decided change is in order within the state Department of Natural Resources, opting against reappointing Rifle resident Russell George as its executive director.On Thursday, Ritter named fellow Denver attorney Harris Sherman as head of the department. Sherman served in the same position under then Gov. Richard Lamm, from 1975-80.Both Lamm and Ritter are Democrats. Voters elected Ritter to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Owens in November; Ritter will take office Jan. 9. Despite also being a Republican, George applied as a candidate for the position under Ritter.State Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, co-chaired the committee that recommended four candidates for Ritter’s consideration for the job. Sherman was one of those candidates.Curry, who also chairs the House panel that oversees natural resources, said she didn’t think Ritter’s decision was politically based. Rather, she said, it reflects his desire for new ideas and new faces in his administration.”In this case he’s getting kind of an experienced new face,” Curry said.Ritter said in a statement, “Coloradans will greatly benefit from Harris’ unmatched experience in the field of natural resources and environmental protection. He truly understands the solemn responsibility that comes with wisely managing our state’s precious natural resources and protecting the environment, including our wilderness areas, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and water supplies.”Trési Houpt, the Democratic Garfield County commissioner who served on the committee that screened candidates for the Department of Natural Resources, praised Ritter’s choice of Sherman.”I think that the governor-elect made a very good selection, and I look forward to working with him,” Houpt said.For confidentiality reasons, Houpt, Curry and Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer wouldn’t say whether George was one of the four candidates recommended to Ritter. Ritter wasn’t obligated to choose one of those candidates.George was not available for comment Thursday night.Curry said George was the only candidate for the job from the Western Slope, and she was disappointed more people from that region didn’t apply for the job.”It would have been great to have a Western Sloper or a rural Colorado person in that position,” she said.By contrast, Sherman serves on the Denver water board, which historically has feuded with the Western Slope over water issues. But Curry said that board has been “pretty progressive” in dealing with state water issues in recent years. She also understands Sherman is respected around the state, she said.”He has so many clients all over the state that his familiarity with the issues and concerns in the various regions is obviously high,” she said. “I think he’s eminently qualified. He brings a lot to the position.”Sherman is a senior partner with the law firm of Arnold & Porter, practicing primarily in the areas of natural resources, environment, water, land-use and public-land law. He also is a National Advisory Board member for the Trust for Public Land and has served as chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission and Denver Regional Air Quality Council. George served in the House of Representatives in the 1990s, eventually becoming speaker, the top House leadership position. He then headed the Colorado Division of Wildlife before Owens named him to his Cabinet about three years ago.Said Dreyer, “The governor-elect has a tremendous amount of respect for the great work that Russ George has done for the state of Colorado and most recently as the leader of the Department of Natural Resources.”Houpt believes the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which the Department of Natural Resources oversees, has failed to work to adequately protect public health and the environment.”I would really want that to become as important a focus as moving energy development forward is. I think we’re not doing anyone a service by not making that a top priority,” she said.She also wished the department had recognized “the strong desire of the public” to protect the top of the Roan Plateau from natural gas drilling rather than recommending a compromise, she said. And she would like to see the Colorado Division of Wildlife, another agency under the department, return to its practice of reviewing development applications and recommending ways to minimize impacts on wildlife.Still, Houpt said, “I think that Russ did a good job with what was put before him both as the DOW director and then as the DNR director. He’s always been responsive and I’ve appreciated working with him. We haven’t always agreed on issues but that’s not uncommon when we work with these different issues. I do appreciate the work that he’s done.”George is not entirely out of the running for a job with the Ritter administration. He also applied to be interbasin compact director, which deals with water issues between river basins within the state. George took the latter duties over the course of his work as DNR director, but recommended to Ritter’s transition team the two jobs be split because of the time each of them requires. Curry said she has advised that Ritter wait to seek the input of the new DNR director before filling that position.Sherman’s appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate.