Printed on: February 08, 2013

Interior nominee comes from recreation industry, not 'Old West'

By Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman

BOISE -- Sally Jewell paddled the mild whitewater of the Boise River in a kayak on a trip with other REI executives a few years ago.

The Recreational Equipment Inc. chief executive guided the nearly $2 billion outdoor retailer back to profitability after she took the helm in 2000.

With her nomination Wednesday by President Barack Obama to serve as Interior secretary, Jewell now must navigate the challenging waters of the Senate confirmation process.

Then the Seattle native can take over as the nation's top wildlife manager and the landlord of more than 500 million acres of national parks, federal rangeland and wildlife refuges. That includes more than 16 million acres in Idaho, from the Owyhee Canyonlands to Yellowstone National Park.

Jewell, 56, would manage more than 600 dams and be responsible for 68 percent of the nation's oil and gas reserves and millions of acres of federal mining lands.

Her leadership in making the outdoor industry a major voice for conservation makes the environmental community consider her one of their own. The University of Washington engineering graduate began her career with Mobil, working in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Wyoming before moving to Rainier Bank to oversee petroleum land investments.

That connection has been noticed by the oil and gas industry.

"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 Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance.

Tom Chelstrom, the retired manager of REI's Boise store on Emerald Street, said Jewell is a visionary leader who will bring people together.

"Every time I had the opportunity to spend time with her, she inspired me to be a leader -- not just in the store but in the community," Chelstrom said.

Jewell's appointment goes against the grain of Interior secretaries. Most are career politicians elevated, like former Idaho Interior secretaries Dirk Kempthorne and Cecil Andrus, from a Western governor's or congressional office.

Her predecessor, Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator, also was a rancher, one of the traditional industries -- along with mining and logging -- of the Old West.

Jewell would be the first secretary to come from recreation, one of the West's emerging new economic sectors, said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.

Johnson served with Jewell on Obama's America's Great Outdoor initiative board.

"She's New West, she's not Old West," Johnson said.

Outdoor recreation created $646 billion in national sales and services in 2011, nearly double the size of pharmaceuticals and motor vehicles/parts, according to a report commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Association, the Western Governors Association and both motorized and nonmotorized recreation groups.

Creating more than 6 million jobs, the recreation industry is as big as the financial services and insurance industry and outpatient health care, said the report.

Jewell, during her introduction by Obama on Wednesday, could have been alluding to this difference when she said that Salazar's big cowboy boots would be hard to fill.

"But I think I might get lost in your hat," she said.

Salazar got along well with Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter and pleased western ranchers when he pushed for removing the Rocky Mountain gray wolf from the Endangered Species List.

Johnson doesn't expect Jewell's policies will be that much different, but her style could be.

For one, Obama may be looking to leave a legacy on conservation.

On Tuesday, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt urged Obama to protect as much federal land as it leases annually for oil and gas.

In Obama's first term, 6 million acres were leased compared with the 2.6 million acres protected. Babbitt called for generous use of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president the power to designate national monuments.

"Clearly, (Jewell) is going to be the architect of some component of the Obama conservation legacy," Johnson said.

Chelstrom, the retired REI manager, predicts Jewell's experience hiking, climbing mountains, kayaking and getting kids interested in the outdoors may allow her to reach a larger audience than past secretaries.

"I would hope that she is successful in engaging the nation in a conversation about protection of our public lands," Chelstrom said.