Incoming Interior Secretary Sally Jewell: Not a Pol
Obama's new federal landlord is apolitical in her consensus-seeking ways
President Obama’s nominee for heading the Department of Interior, Sally Jewell, is noteworthy not for who she is, but for who she is not.
She is a mountaineer, an ultra-marathon runner, a CEO of the outdoor gear giant REI, and a former bank executive and oil company engineer. She appears to be some kind of archetypical uber-woman of the Pacific Northwest, jogging up Mt. Rainier on coffee breaks.
Jewell’s resume indicates plenty of experience in both components of “ecosystem management." Those interested in “ecosystems” will look toward her years with REI and the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association; those leaning toward “management” will note her careers in the petroleum and banking industries.
A Seattleite (former mayor Richard Ballinger) has been Interior Secretary before, and so has a woman, Gale Norton. But what sets Jewell apart is that she is not a politician. For many decades, Secretary of the Interior has been the plum post of Western politicians: Donald Hodel, Cecil Andrus, Harold Ickes, Ken Salazar, Stewart Udall, Bruce Babbitt, Dirk Kempthorne. All shared a background in some level of political position, either elected or high in the apparatus of government or partisan machines.
Interior is bloody political turf because the stakes are high and the money is big. Land is wealth and the Interior Department manages millions of publicly owned acres, from scablands to national treasures such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. The land includes oil and gas and big game animals and ski resorts and other precious resources. When folks compete to divvy that up, they do it with sharp knives.
The mere fact that Jewell is President Obama’s candidate shows that a more mature view could be emerging about the role and mission of the department. Jewell knows there is more than one way to wrest wealth from land. Yes, there’s a place for using the land to provide food, fuel and fiber. America needs all that.
But in the modern world, other values rise like cream as well. Jewell’s billion-dollar REI is part of a much larger outdoor recreation industry. America’s great public landholdings are valuable not only for crude oil, natural gas and livestock feed, but also for providing scenic getaways for weary urbanites, fishing and hunting spots for blue-collar families, streams for salmon and a host of other species, and clean water for millions of people downstream.
Plus, our public lands are increasingly understood to provide a priceless setting for business owners and other investors. Economists are getting better at putting dollar signs on that, but it still represents a shifting mindset. The glimmering chrome-and-wood temple of REI in downtown Seattle is testimony to the fact that recreation and quality-of-life dollars add up to real money.
It’s hard to trace Jewell’s record to assess how she might approach natural resource disputes in our public lands. But clues point toward a mind that understands the value of consensus and fair solutions.
Jewell’s kneejerk critics, like Utah’s Rep. Rob Bishop, will find an environmentalist conspiracy in anything that smells more like pine needles than gas fumes. That gets him re-elected in Utah but his views don’t represent the broader American experience.
In her home state of Washington, Jewell’s reputation is that of a pragmatist, not an ideologue. She’s supported efforts like the Yakima Basin Integrated Management Plan. That’s a classic example of centrist groups, both from conservation and agriculture, getting down to brass tacks, compromising and solving problems. The result is going to give farmers water they need for irrigation, and restore runs of sockeye salmon. Hard-core folks on both extreme throw rocks at the plan, which tends to indicate that it's the kind of collaborative conservation that gets things done.
Can Jewell’s kind of professional experience survive—let alone get good things done—in today’s Washington? Is the fortitude that got her to the highest peak in Antarctica enough to endure the posturing and politics of Congress? A good guess is that Jewell’s appointment—a refreshing departure from the old politics—signals that Obama is setting the stage for a conservation legacy. And if confirmed, Ms. Jewell can count on one thing: She is headed for the adventure of a lifetime.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.