With an ice ax in her right hand and crampons underfoot, Sally Jewell in summer 2010 led five women at daybreak up Emmons Glacier on the northeast flank of Washington's Mount Rainier.
Scaling a 14,400-foot peak might be extreme for most CEOs, but it was routine for Jewell, who heads the outdoor retailer REI.
Jewell bikes to work at REI's Kent, Wash., headquarters, then climbs Mailbox Peak for weekday workouts and kayaks for weekend fun. The 56-year-old just might be the most physically fit person ever nominated to lead the Interior Department -- or any other Cabinet post.
President Obama, in picking her yesterday to replace outgoing Interior chief Ken Salazar, said one of Jewell's biggest challenges would be sitting behind a desk.
"I'm willing to bet that she will be the first secretary of the Interior who frequently hikes Mailbox Peak in her native Washington state and who once spent a month climbing mountains in Antarctica," Obama said at a ceremony at the State Dining Room as Jewell and Salazar looked on.
Conservationists, Democratic lawmakers and at least one former Interior secretary said Jewell's lifestyle and love for the outdoors could help her lead the $12 billion department whose jurisdiction includes hundreds of national parks, forests and recreation areas.
But Republicans are looking for signs that Jewell might favor hikers and paddlers over energy developers, whose activities Interior also oversees.
In nominating Jewell, the White House praised her advocacy for wild places and her understanding of the link between conservation and the economy. For REI, access to rivers, trails and backcountry areas equals more sales for the $1.8 billion company.
"You have a secretary who really does do what some would consider to be high-intensity, pretty crazy outdoor experiences, which for many of us it's kind of the quintessential Department of Interior experience," said Alan Rowsome, director of conservation funding for the Wilderness Society.
"This sort of intersection between her work on the outdoor recreation economy and being able to talk from personal experience about the business side, combined with the fact that she is an outdoorswoman and is clearly very adept on those two things, makes her an ideal choice," Rowsome said.
Dirk Kempthorne, a former Republican governor of Idaho who served as Interior secretary under President George W. Bush, said Jewell's love of the outdoors could pay dividends in an office that oversees one-fifth of the U.S. land mass and spans 14 time zones. The job of secretary, Kempthorne said, is not for those who love sleep; he averaged 70 secretarial events per week.
"Ronald Reagan once said, 'Only in America would the department in charge of the outdoors be called Interior,'" said Kempthorne, who now heads the American Council of Life Insurers, in an interview yesterday. "The fact that Sally is absolutely an outdoor enthusiast and prides herself on being physically fit, I think fits very well in the responsibilities there."
Jewell told The New York Times in 2007 she spends a "huge amount of time" in the outdoors and at one time biked more than 7 miles to work.
"My son Mark takes me mountain climbing for Mother's Day each year," Jewell said. "And my mom will turn 80 this year. For her birthday, we're taking a sailing trip."
After beginning her career at Mobil Oil Corp. in Oklahoma and Colorado, Jewell was a corporate banker for roughly two decades before coming to REI. While her banking colleagues would take clients on golf trips, Jewell said she took hers skiing.
"And I still bike to work," Jewell, who makes more than $1 million a year, said of her REI post. "The difference is, biking to work seemed strange to bankers. At REI, it's normal behavior."
Jewell's outdoor lifestyle would not be without precedent at Interior.
"Kempthorne took pride in being very physically fit," said one Bush administration official, who recalled the Idahoan would vet his hotels for the quality of their gyms.
As Interior secretary, Kempthorne said he swam in the Colorado River and hiked up to the rim of the Grand Canyon. He also snorkeled in Palau's Jellyfish Lake, took long hikes in Alaska, visited Teddy Roosevelt's ranch, and often rode motorcycles and horses with Interior's law enforcement officers.
"The more that you are physically active, not only does it keep you healthy, but it sends a very strong message that you are invested in the responsibilities of this magnificent country and its outdoors," Kempthorne said.
Salazar, who is a fifth-generation rancher from Colorado, is known less for extreme outdoor sports but is a regular on the Interior basketball courts. Those who know him say he enjoys biking the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail and often jogs the National Mall. Salazar has spoken poetically about the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southeast Colorado, which can be seen from his San Luis Valley ranch.
Gale Norton, who often tussled with conservationists and sportsmen over her balance of oil and gas leasing and conservation on public lands, in 2000 told the Associated Press that if she hadn't been nominated as George W. Bush's Interior secretary, she'd be skiing the mountains in her native Colorado.
And Bruce Babbitt, who served for two terms under President Clinton, was a certified wildland firefighter, according to Dave Alberswerth, a senior adviser for the Wilderness Society who served at Interior under Babbitt.
Babbitt, who stashed his orange firefighting bag in the corner of his Interior office, would sometimes join crews on the fire lines, Alberswerth said.
He was also an avid hiker who loved the Grand Canyon, Alberswerth said. Clinton dispatched Babbitt to canoe places like the Upper Missouri River in northeast Montana to research possible national monument designations.
Activism draws scrutiny
In addition to her personal activities, Jewell has been a leading advocate for groups that lobby for protecting public lands, a fact that has environmentalists hopeful she will make conservation a keystone of her tenure.
In Obama's second term, green groups are lobbying him hard to designate new national monuments.
Jewell has made personal calls to Senate members in recent years to support full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a priority of Salazar and the White House as House Republicans sought to shrink the fund. She has also donated to the Outdoor Industry Association's political committee and the Conservation Alliance and is on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
At the same time, her support for those groups -- which have supported restrictions on oil and gas drilling, mining and off-highway vehicle use -- has many Republicans worried that she would carry a bias against those industries.
According to Politico, Republican staff are already circulating a list of lawsuits filed by NPCA, which has fought snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park and off-highway vehicles and Jet Skis on national seashores, activities that would come under Jewell's jurisdiction.
"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-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. "Additionally, her company has intimately supported several special interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas."
Jewell's lack of political record -- she has never held public office -- means she will be intensely scrutinized on Capitol Hill, where partisanship and disputes over Interior policies have sunk past agency nominees.
While Jewell can say she has a clean slate, she will likely be asked to weigh in on thorny Interior issues involving drilling on Colorado's Roan Plateau, Salazar's withdrawal of 77 leases near national parks in Utah and the decision to bar uranium claims on 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon.
"The administration feels one of your primary qualifications is being a conservation activist," the former Bush administration official said. "I would not be totally surprised if people ask questions."
In the 2007 New York Times article, Jewell, who was born in England, said "even as a small child I was already an environmentalist."
But her experience as a mechanical engineer for Mobil has earned her early plaudits from some drilling groups, who have argued the next Interior secretary needs to understand the importance of drilling access on public lands.
Jewell, who graduated from the University of Washington in 1978, said she and her husband, Warren, never felt there was anything wrong with working for an oil company.
"In fact, I remember thinking how ironic it was when Greenpeace started using gasoline-powered boats to block oil tankers, or when people drove to protests against oil drilling, or when people who built wood houses and read books said no one should ever cut down trees," she told the newspaper.