Recreation executive is Obama's pick for Interior secretary

Feb 15, 2013

Bucking a long-standing presidential tradition of placing western lawmakers at the helm of the Department of Interior (DOI), President Obama last week nominated outdoor retail executive Sally Jewell to manage the nation’s vast portfolio of public lands.

Introducing Jewell at a press conference, the president touted Jewell’s early background as an oilfield engineer and later experience as a commercial banker, suggesting that her broad professional history would help her strike a balance between the competing claims of industry and conservation for public land resources.

“[S]he is an expert on the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future,” said the president. “She knows the link between conservation and good jobs. 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.”

Since 2005, Jewell has been president and CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., widely known as “REI,” a major retailer of outdoor recreation equipment. Pulling in nearly $2 billion in sales annually, REI has 127 stores in 31 states and recently ranked 17th in Fortune Magazine’s yearly survey 100 Best Companies to Work For.

Widely recognized as an avid outdoorswoman—she has summited mountains in Antarctica and enjoys kayaking, camping and hiking—the 56-year old Jewell won out over more traditional picks for the post like outgoing Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, and current Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes. Jewell was considered a dark horse in the running due to her lack of political experience, which has been limited to leadership roles in several environmental non-profit organizations, most prominently as a former board member and current vice chair for the National Parks Conservation Association.

However, Jewell has made repeat appearances at the president’s side over the past four years.

In April 2010, Jewell introduced Obama at the launch of his America’s Great Outdoors initiative, while she and other business leaders have also advised the president on health care issues.

If confirmed, Jewell will succeed Ken Salazar as secretary of Interior. As secretary, Jewell would preside over more than 500 million acres of public lands, including those administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Parks System, and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. DOI also oversees the administration of the Endangered Species Act, as well as extensive petroleum, mining, grazing and timber leases.

Jewell’s multi-faceted past represents an unusual blend of experience in the petroleum industry, banking and retail, along with an ongoing commitment to environmental causes. Graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in mechanical engineering, Jewell began her career working as an engineer for Mobile Oil in Oklahoma and Colorado.

She shifted her focus to finance when—during the ’80s oil boom—banks were looking for energy savvy engineers to evaluate loans to energy companies. Jewell proved to be highly effective at assessing the risks associated with energy lending, working for several banks in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2000, Jewell made another major career shift, this time to join REI as chief operating officer, and later as CEO. Under her captaincy, REI has focused on green initiatives, including using renewable energy, environmentally-friendly building materials and design, and maximizing recycling. Last year, REI donated $4 million to restore parks and trails for recreational use.

Democrats have warmly received Jewell’s nomination. Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ron Wyden, D- OR, called Jewell’s nomination “an inspired choice,” adding that “[h]er record shows that she understands the importance of preserving our public lands for future generations, as well as the critical links between public lands, natural resources and economic growth.”

Natural resource industry representatives have been less effusive in their praise of Jewell, although many have expressed reserved optimism that her background in petroleum and business holds promise that she will take a pragmatic approach to managing the public lands. In a statement, American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard expressed hope that Jewell’s broad background would allow her to see the value in developing energy on federal lands in addition to recreational uses.

“The Department of the Interior is key to the future of American energy policy,” said Gerard. “We look forward to learning how Sally Jewell’s business background and experience in the oil and natural gas industry will shape her approach to the game-changing prospects before us in energy development.”

Western Energy Alliance President Tim Wigley struck a similar tone, welcoming Jewell’s engineering and business background as a possible benefit to the energy industries, which struggled during Salazar’s tenure.

“Her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio,” said Wigley. “We hope to see a better balance of productive development on non-park, nonwilderness public lands that enhances the wealth of America and creates jobs while protecting the environment.”

Yet among the plaudits, stern criticism about Jewell’s history of environmental activism indicates that the REI exec’s path to confirmation may not be wholly trimmed with roses. Jewell should expect to be grilled in confirmation hearings over what many see as a potential favoritism for conservation over natural resources.

Of particular concern is Jewell’s involvement with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a non-profit environmental group that has filed numerous lawsuits against the federal government, including an attempt to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park and a separate case in which they contested a federal regulation allowing concealed firearms to be carried in national parks. According to a report in the Washington Free Beacon, NPCA often bankrolls its litigation through the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), essentially using tax-payer dollars to sue the government.

Both the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) have endorsed legislation aimed at reining in EAJA on the grounds that it is being exploited by radical environmental groups.

Jewell has also drawn suspicion from natural resource users due to REI’s ongoing involvement in the Conservation Alliance, a group REI formed with fellow outdoor equipment companies Patagonia, the North Face, and Kelty in 1989. Conservation Alliance partners provide funding to a range of environmental non-profit groups including several with wellknown anti-grazing agendas such as the Oregon Natural Desert Association, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and EarthJustice.

Jewell’s ongoing support of such groups through REI’s cash donations to the Conservation Alliance has given some conservative lawmakers a serious cause for concern.

“While I certainly respect her business expertise, the president had other options who possessed extensive experience with public policy in the west and the impacts of so much federally-owned land,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT. “[H]er company has intimately supported several special interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas,” continued Bishop, who added that he looks forward to a complete vetting of Jewell to get a clearer idea of her ideals and agenda.

The cattle industry was similarly cool in its reception of Jewell. Dustin Van Liew, PLC executive director and NCBA director of federal lands, stressed that Jewell’s close affiliation with groups known for their attempts to foreclose on public lands grazing was a serious issue for ranchers.

“The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council share the reservations of many western legislators about the president’s nominee for secretary of the Interior,” said Van Liew. “While we applaud her background in private industry, her ties to groups seeking to remove grazing and other multiple uses from public lands are concerning to livestock producers. We look forward to learning more about Mrs. Jewell’s background as the Senate reviews her nomination.” — Andy Rieber,, WLJ Correspondent