Interior secretary seeks long-term strategy for conservation; says some lands must be saved

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called Thursday for a long-term conservation strategy that balances development of public lands with protection of wild spaces, saying her agency will ensure that both goals are pursued during a period of climate change, tight budgets and increasing demands on the nation’s land and water.

But she promised that with Congress refusing to set aside even a single acre of wilderness for protection since 2010, President Obama would use the Antiquities Act to preserve additional national monuments, as he has nine times since he took office. And, she said, certain areas, such as Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which she has visited, should never be open to drilling for oil and gas.

Jewell, whose department of 70,000 employees oversees 20 percent of the land in the United States, also issued her first order as head of the agency Thursday. It establishes a department-wide process to offset the effects of “large development projects” through “landscape-level planning, banking, in-lieu fee arrangements” and other measures.

“Part of the answer is encouraging development in the right ways and in the right places,” she said in a lunchtime speech at the National Press Club. “Part of the answer is recognizing that there are some places that are too special to develop.”

Conservation groups found much to cheer in Jewell’s speech. Many responded in the same way as Sierra Club President Michael Brune, who in a statement praised Jewell “for recognizing the value of our nation’s public lands and the importance of saving and expanding our wild legacy for future generations to enjoy.”

Joel Webster, director of a sportsmen’s group, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Western Lands, encouraged the Interior Department to conserve lands that “provide key habitats and high-quality sporting opportunities.”

In February, when Obama nominated Jewell — a former oil engineer, commercial banker and head of Recreational Equipment Inc. (commonly known as REI) — he signaled the type of approach he was seeking in making her an unconventional pick to head the Interior Department.

“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” Obama said then. “She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that, in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.”

Jewell took pains to criticize the damage she says has been done by budget sequestration and what she called the “absurd, wasteful government shutdown.”

The closing of national parks during the shutdown, she said, cost local communities $76 million a day in lost visitor spending. During the 16-day October shutdown, Jewell worked out arrangements with some states that allowed them to open popular national parks if they paid to operate them.

She called on Congress to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund by 2015 and the president’s budget. The fund uses oil and gas royalty payments to help develop parks, wildlife refuges, trails and historic sites, among others.

Jewell also outlined a goal of engaging millennials, the generation between ages 18 and 34, whom she said are disconnected from public lands.

She announced plans to develop outdoor recreation opportunities in 50 cities for 10 million members of that generation by 2017; enlist 1 million volunteers — triple the current number — to support public lands; and provide 100,000 work and training opportunities for young people. She said she also hopes to provide outdoor education programs for at least 10 million K-12 students annually.

“It’s critical that we work now to establish meaningful and deep connections between young people from every background and every community and the great outdoors,” Jewell said.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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