Obama nominates REI chief executive as interior secretary

February 6, 2013

When colleagues want to conduct business with Sally Jewell, they have a better chance getting her to schedule a lengthy hike than a coffee date.

President Obama’s unconventional pick to lead the Interior Department — a former oil engineer and commercial banker who heads the consumer co-op Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) — represents an effort by the administration to defuse the partisan fight over conservation and energy.

Jewell, who lacks the political experience of previous interior secretaries, will be challenged to rebuild a national consensus over protecting public lands. But friends and colleagues describe her as a pragmatic business leader who could work with both parties and interest groups on all sides.

Many environmentalists and oil and gas industry officials greeted her nomination with cautious optimism Wednesday, saying she could reconnect Americans to their outdoors heritage without stifling drilling and mining operations on land and off shore.

Introducing her at the White House, Obama emphasized that Jewell “has spent the majority of her career outside of Washington, where, I might add, the majority of our interior is located.”

She has proven, he added, that one can reconcile economic growth and environmental protection.

“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” Obama said. “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, 56, who has spent most of her life in the Seattle area, is an avid climber and hiker who scaled Antarctica’s highest peak two years ago and has repeatedly climbed Washington state’s Mt. Rainier. Doug Walker, who served on the board of REI with Jewell, said she “walks the talk. . . . Sally is not fooling you here. She really does this stuff.”

Walker, who chairs the board of the Wilderness Society, described Jewell as a “can-do, activist-type manager” who will focus on inspiring Americans to care about public lands. The biggest challenge that conservationists face is “really reconnecting these federal lands to the broad swatch of American people, not just elderly white people,” Walker said.

Jewell has advised Republican and Democratic administrations alike on how to enlist more Americans in outdoor activities, most recently helping chart a plan for the U.S. National Park Service’s future while she served on the National Parks Second Century Commission.

Obama touted his nominee’s experience working for Mobil Oil in the late 1970s and the early ’80s, noting that Jewell was a University of Washington undergraduate studying to be a dentist when she “realized her boyfriend’s homework was more interesting than hers, and she decided to become an engineer” and “went on to work in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Colorado.”

Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said he hoped that time in the fields would translate into expanded oil and gas drilling on federal lands. “We hope to see a better balance of productive development on non-park, non-wilderness public lands that enhances the wealth of America and creates jobs while protecting the environment,” he said.

Jewell also won praise from former interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who enlisted her in multiple brainstorming sessions in Shepherdstown, W.Va., when he led the department under President George W. Bush.

“She was always someone I wanted there because she’s a catalyst,” Kempthorne said, adding that he didn’t even know her party affiliation. He said she was well suited to manage Interior’s “vast portfolio,” which includes Indian lands and offshore drilling, “because she is effective and time-tested on taking a variety of issues, deciphering them, determining what is the most important and making a decision.”

A few voices within the Republican Party and the environmental community expressed hesi­ta­tion Wednesday, noting that Jewell’s limited political résumémade it difficult to pass judgment.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she “looked forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency and how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department.”

Bill Snape, senior counsel for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, wrote in an e-mail that he and his colleagues “are hopeful but not yet joining the love fest. She has her work cut out for her and our public lands are not a publicly-traded commodity on Wall Street.”

Outdoor Industry Association President Frank Hugelmeyer said the move shows that the president has recognized the true economic value of outdoor recreation. Hugelmeyer estimated that it generates $646 billion in annual direct consumer spending and 6.1 million direct jobs.

“No one sees it as unusual when a Treasury secretary comes out of the investment banking world,” he said. “I think it’s way overdue.”

If confirmed, Jewell would take over at a time when many conservationists are pressing Obama to take bolder action on land conservation. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar devoted much of his tenure to promoting renewable energy on public land and managing the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

On Tuesday, former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt gave a speech at the National Press Club in which he called on the president to set aside one acre permanently for conservation for every acre he leases for oil and gas development.

“So far, under President Obama, industry has been winning the race as it obtains more and more land for oil and gas,” Babbitt said. “Over the past four years, the industry has leased more than 6 million acres, compared with only 2.6 million acres permanently protected. In the Obama era, land conservation is again falling behind.”

Fran Ulmer, a former lieutenant governor of Alaska who serves on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association with Jewell, said the nominee was skilled at helping “people get to a common solution” and tended “to take the long view” on public-lands issues.

“She’s going to ask the question, not what’s in the best interest today but what’s in the interest in the long term, and I think that will have implications for energy policy and public-lands management,” Ulmer said, “I’d say in a good way.”

As a member of the University of Washington’s Board of Regents, Jewell is also familiar with navigating difficult budget issues. The university’s president, Michael Young, said that even as board members struggled with a loss of state funding and subsequent tuition increases, “Sally was a remarkably steady voice in steering through that. She’s a great manager: very levelheaded, very clear-eyed, with the capacity to keep her focus on the ultimate goal.”

And Walker said that although Jewell is somewhat wary of entering the political fray, she’s “in essence willing to sacrifice everything” to take on the challenge.

“It’s not like she’s running for something else,” he said. “This is the culmination of what she wants to do.”

At the White House on Wednesday, Jewell joked about the challenge before her. “I’m going to do my best to fill those big boots of yours,” Jewell said to Salazar, prompting a round of laughter, “but I think I might get lost in your hat.”

Eddy J. Palanzo contributed to this report.

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