On February 6, Sally Jewell — “Badass in Chief” — was tapped by President Obama to lead the department of the interior. The CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., Jewell brings a wide variety of management skills and conservation experience to a department that, by her words, “sometimes has conflicting mandates to promote resource development and preserve the nation’s natural heritage.” In addition to being one cool customer, she’s also a bit understated.
A former Mobil oil engineer, banker and lifelong conservationist, Jewell has the kind of expertise that makes her a perfect fit for the job. She’s navigated craggy white-mountain peaks and stuffy white-collar boardrooms.
Her advocacy and activism for natural spaces is informed by a career often viewed by environmentalists as “the dark side.”
I’ve half-joked with friends about applying to intern at BP, as a sort of espionage-style insider activist. Jewell has made a career out of this approach. It will serve her well as director of the Interior, an agency that is notorious for its “split personality.”
Indeed, the Interior Department’s existence is a paradox. The national park service falls under its auspices, as does the office of surface mining. The fish and wildlife service houses itself in the department’s office, along with the bureau of land management.
It is the steward of our last remaining vestiges of “wilderness,” while at the same time the catalyst for production — of oil, gas and mining — that pollutes public lands.
Given its “conflicting mandates,” the direction of the department often rests with the agency of the individual in charge.
The most recent Interior directors — Gale Norton, Dick Kempthorne and Ken Salazar — have not had good track records in the realm of conservation. Norton and Kempthorne were both appointed by George W. Bush and unanimously supported Progress with a capital “P” at the expense of conservation. Salazar brought a bit more balance to the department.
However, he elicited negative responses from environmentalists and congressional Republicans alike when he opened half of the National Petroleum Reserve to drilling in December. To the former, it was far too much; to the latter, much too little.
The debate over extracting energy from public lands will be what shapes Jewell’s time at the interior. She has weathered her fair share of blizzards while hiking some of the world’s most treacherous peaks, but now faces a different kind of storm.
Her distinguished set of tools, acquired in the industrial sector as well as the conservation arena, will serve us all well.