INTERIOR:

Sally Jewell meets the Avenging Fellowship of the Rainbow Lightsaber Unicorns

Not two weeks removed from a grueling Senate confirmation process, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell found herself yesterday being peppered once again with questions.

But rather than a Senate hearing room, the question-and-answer session came during a hike at Prince William Forest Park in suburban Washington, D.C., on a sunny, if slightly chilly, morning. And instead of energy development and lands use, the topic was adventure.

Jewell, the former CEO of outdoor retail giant REI, hiked with students from Stonewall Middle School in Prince William County, Va., who are participating in a field science program through the nonprofit NatureBridge. The kids call themselves "The Avenging Fellowship of the Rainbow Lightsaber Unicorns."

The event was billed by the Interior Department as Jewell's first public appearance since being installed last week as the 51st Interior secretary. And Jewell brought backup yesterday in the form of National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

Part of the reason for Jewell's visit was to meet with private-sector stakeholders to discuss ways to promote economic growth around national parks at a time when funding is limited due to sequester reductions.

But first there was the hike.

It began with an awkward moment for Jarvis. When the group was directed to pair off for the hike by Benjamin Komar, a ranger at Olympic National Park who also works for NatureBridge, Jarvis was originally the odd one out.

A slightly embarrassed Komar quickly found his boss a buddy for the walk.

Once that was settled, the group members set off, two by two, for Quantico Creek as Komar provided topics for each pair to discuss.

"What's the biggest adventure you've been on?" Komar called out.

Jewell told her hiking partner, Elena -- who will turn 13 in two days -- about the month she spent ice climbing in Antarctica. The trip included a climb of Vinson Massif, the highest mountain on the continent.

When Elena wondered about how cold it was, Jewell noted that the average temperature was 20 below zero.

"I don't think I could do that," Elena said in awe.

That's about the time Komar stopped the group and reshuffled partners for the next question.

"What's your favorite fictional adventure?" he asked.

Jewell told her new partner that she'd love to play the fictional game of Quidditch, as described in the Harry Potter novels.

"The idea of zooming around on a broom and playing a game sounded fun to me," she said as she ducked under a branch hanging over the path.

When she switched partners again, Jewell found herself with 13-year-old Jenelle, whose hot pink sneakers stood out next to Jewell's black windbreaker, brown pants and black hiking shoes.

This time, each person was asked to describe an adventure that he or she would like to go on.

For Jewell, it would be a sailing trip in the Pacific Ocean, perhaps to Hawaii or to the Sea of Cortez.

But Jewell seemed intrigued by Jenelle's answer.

"I guess, just get in a car and drive somewhere," Jenelle said. "I don't want to know where I'm going."

Jewell told Jenelle about her road trips during her younger days, when she put 15,000 miles on her car driving across America visiting national parks.

'You would never run a business this way'

Prince William Forest Park is touted by the Park Service as the largest green space in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Established in 1936, the park was designed as a place where low-income, inner-city children and families could enjoy the outdoors.

Originally named the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area, Prince William Forest Park was built by more than 2,000 workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps over six years beginning in 1935.

It was part of a massive Depression-era park expansion effort sponsored by the federal government -- an effort that's hard to imagine in the current era of government cutbacks.

Jewell hasn't been shy in expressing her views on what the sequester is doing to the Interior Department and its 70,000 employees.

Mandatory furloughs began hitting the U.S. Park Police this week. All 767 employees of that branch of Interior are required to take 14 furlough days before Sept. 30.

Jarvis has announced that the Park Service will leave 900 full-time permanent positions vacant due to sequestration and hire 1,000 fewer seasonal employees this year.

But numbers don't tell the whole story.

Jewell told the tale of an employee she met in the past two weeks who is being furloughed and now has to figure out whether she can still afford to work at Interior.

"She's a single parent, she's being furloughed multiple days, and she's paycheck-to-paycheck," Jewell said.

And while Jewell said federal employees aren't getting much sympathy from Congress or the American public, she has tried to let Interior employees that she's as frustrated with the sequester as they are.

"You would never run a business this way," she said. "You would never take arbitrary cuts across everything. ... I'm telling them that I'm advocating for them. I'm bringing my business experience to bear to make sure that our elected officials know the impact on people."

She declined to speculate on how long she thinks the sequester will last.

"I know there are people who get this and are trying to do something about it, which I really appreciate," she said.

But those issues all seemed very far away from Quantico Creek yesterday.

'Good luck running the country'

Upon reaching the creek, Jewell immediately joined the students in taking water samples.

Jarvis, meanwhile, busied himself by pulling up a few bunches of invasive mullen weed, better known as Indian tobacco.

"Once a ranger, it never gets out of your blood," he explained. Jarvis told students the park is home to black bears, turkeys, foxes and deer. There are also geese that were lounging in Quantico Creek and tiny frogs hopping across the sunlit water.

Jewell and Jarvis spent another 15 minutes along the banks of the creek, looking through microscopes and helping to identify an insect species, until a press aide informed them it was time to head back to address the stakeholders.

After one last group picture, Jewell and Jarvis said their goodbyes to Komar and the Avenging Fellowship of the Rainbow Lightsaber Unicorns.

"Good luck running the country and whatnot!" Komar called out, before leading the students on to their next adventure.

Reporter Alexandra C. Zaneski contributed.

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