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Jewell choice for Interior praised, but what's Obama vision for public lands?

Obama with Sally Jewell
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Without a doubt, Sally Jewell is an intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary and widely unexpected choice to be chief caretaker of the most beautiful and resource-rich real estate we Americans own in common.

If Sally Jewell were an REI product, she would be a top-end utility tool — sharp, durable, innovative, good for any occasion and sport. ... [She] has succeeded as an oil-industry engineer, a banker, a corporate executive at REI, a regent of her alma mater, the University of Washington, and as an advocate for preserving the waters and wildlands that define her home state. — editorial in The Seattle Times

Had to smile at that Swiss Army metaphor, perhaps irresistible for the hometown paper of both the next secretary of the Interior and her present employer.

It stood out in a stream of reaction that has seemed, at least to my ear, unusually predictable, passionless, almost rote: Compliments and optimism from conservation and outdoor-recreation groups. Mild, scattered praise from the oil and gas sector. A few bleats from people who might prefer there be no Interior Department in the first place.

Without a doubt, Sally Jewell is an intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary and widely unexpected choice to be chief caretaker of the most beautiful and resource-rich real estate we Americans own in common. She  sounds like an executive who could excel in any assignment.

But there's a big, unanswered question running in the background of all this early coverage and commentary: Just what does the White House want from Interior and its secretary in the next four years?

Not another Salazar, for sure

Four years ago, in naming Colorado's Ken Salazar for the first-term role, President Obama reached for a cowboy hat — a career politician from the Rocky Mountain West who could get along with Republicans and seemed comfortable with expanding extraction of oil, gas, minerals and timber from the federal estate.

Not insignificantly, for the environmentally minded, Salazar had supported George W. Bush's first-term decision to place Interior in the hands of Gale Norton, a fellow Coloradan and ideologue whom the Sierra Club's Carl Pope tastelessly (but accurately) labeled "James Watt in a skirt."

It's interesting to note that Norton's successor, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, who continued the Watt/Norton tradition of  prioritizing commercial use of public lands above their conservation, has had warm things to say about Jewell.

He told the Washington Post that he invited her to brainstorming sessions at Interior "because she's a catalyst ... effective and time-tested on taking a variety of issues, deciphering them, determining what is the most important and making a decision.”

Of course this doesn't make Jewell a Kempthorne clone. It may speak to her effectiveness across the partisan aisle and other divides, or not.

It's worth remembering, too, that some notably fine leaders at Interior — Bruce Babbitt comes to mind — far exceeded the expectations that most held for them at the outset of their terms.

Rachel Carson in Gore-Tex?

So in Sally Jewell we may be getting a Bob Marshall in a fleece hoodie, or a Rachel Carson in a Gore-Tex anorak. Time will tell.

Other quotes and notes worth mention from the past week:

  • Jewell was born in England, moving to the U.S. at age 3 (and as the blogger Al Kamen somewhat weirdly points out, this would disqualify her from assuming the presidency should some disaster reach all the way to her No. 8 spot in the line of succession). She grew up in the Seattle area, graduating from high school in Renton in 1973.
  • After she earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington., she and her husband worked three years for Mobil Oil Corp. in Oklahoma; she then joined Rainier Bank as petroleum engineer and adviser.
  • According to blogger Bruce Ramsey, who worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the early 1980s, Jewell made her name at little Rainier by discouraging as risky the frenzied oil and gas investments that were making bigger banks rich — advice that proved this thirtysomething banking newcomer rather prescient.
  • Jewell joined the board at Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) in 1996, according to a Seattle Times profile published in 2005.  She left commercial banking to become the company's chief operating officer in 2000, the year REI recorded its first-ever loss. After five years of turnaround and expansion for the company, she became CEO in 2005. 

Committed mountain-climber

  • She has climbed Rainier, the mountain, "repeatedly" and two years ago climbed the highest peak in Antarctica. And according to the Washington Post's Juliet Eilprin, "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."
  • She has served on various non-business boards, including those of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Initiative for Global Development and the University of Washington, as well as a couple of panels dealing with "nature deficit disorder" among today's indoors-loving youth.
  • I thought everybody loved REI. But according to Bloomberg, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs a House subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation, is questioning Jewell's selection because her company “has intimately supported several special interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas.”

(A Bishop aide helpfully explained that the "radical groups" included such mainstream conservation outfits as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Outdoor Industry Association — which tells you something about the state of public-lands politics in Utah and the West, and thus about the challenges Jewell will face.)

Usually, Republicans would be expected to favor the appointment of someone whose entire background is not as a politician, but as a business person. Someone who has "met a payroll" and otherwise succeeded on something other than the public dime. But Bishop and Rep. Chris Stewart were, sadly, heard to worry that Jewell’s particular business experience is not something they find reassuring.

As the CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., Jewell has taken positions on matters of public policy that can only be regarded as pro-business. When, that is, the business you are in is outfitting people to hike, fish, camp and otherwise drink in the natural beauty found across the country, much of it on land that, as the head of the Interior Department and its Bureau of Land Management, Jewell would oversee.

Public-lands involvement

  • Jewell has a reputation in the Northwest as "an outdoor activist who has promoted use by the American public of America's public lands," according to the Post-Intelligencer, and was " a major force behind Washington’s Mountains-to-Sound-Greenway — the successful effort to keep the Interstate 90 corridor through Snoqualmie Pass from succumbing to sprawl and becoming a mountain slum."
  • That involvement was cited by the national Audubon Society in giving Jewell one of its Rachel Carson Awards in 2009, and it was noticed in Washington, too, according to the P-I:

Jewell was promoted for Interior Secretary after Obama’s 2008 victory.  “She was offered the deputy’s job and didn’t take it,” said Gerry Grinstein, retired Delta Airlines chairman who pushed Jewell for the top spot four years ago.  “It was a long soak period for this to get done.”

  • Though most inside-the-Beltway comments on Sally Jewell as secretary have registered support, though often mixed with surprise , a few have included candid equivocation. For example, Bill Snape at Defenders of Wildlife told Eilprin that he and 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.”

And Stephen Brown of Tesoro, a petroleum refining and marketing company, told Politico:

“Salazar was a known entity in Washington, D.C., with his own political base of operations here as well as in Colorado,” said Stephen Brown, vice president for federal government affairs and counsel at the petroleum refining and marketing company Tesoro. “Ms. Jewell is not a political creature, relatively unknown on the Hill, and any power or influence she may have is completely derivative of the president — hence, the White House staff will be running the show.”

But Brown added: “All of that said, her engineering and business credentials could be a welcome respite from the usual folks who tend to get these positions. I just think we all need to temper our expectations of what her nomination indicates.”

Regardless of credentials, Jewell's service will ultimately be shaped by a presidential vision that remains indistinct in regard to public lands. Perhaps it will grow sharper in the State of the Union address tonight.

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