Sally Jewell used her perch as CEO of outdoor retailing giant REI to promote government protection of places where her customers hiked, camped, paddled and biked.
There she was at the Seattle store seven years ago standing with then-Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) to support the Evergreen State's lawsuit challenging the George W. Bush administration's rollback of roadless protections on national forests.
And it was REI's Denver store that hosted then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2010 as he announced a new "wild lands" push to protect backcountry.
Now Interior Secretary Jewell is overseeing the department that manages a fifth of the nation's land. Conservationists, of course, hope Jewell will continue to promote public lands for recreation, even as she balances access for oil and gas development, mining, and off-highway vehicles.
"I think we can certainly be hopeful and maybe even optimistic," said John Sterling, executive director of the Bend, Ore.-based Conservation Alliance, which REI helped found in 1989 and which has provided roughly $12 million to conservation groups, many of which have fought drilling and motorized access near scenic lands. "It's good to have ... a friend in D.C."
Jewell has pledged to embrace President Obama's "all of the above" energy platform, but his choice of the REI executive to lead Interior underscores the growing influence of the outdoor recreation industry in Washington, D.C., and the role of public lands in bolstering opportunities to hunt, fish, hike and camp.
The selection of Jewell, a businesswoman and engineer who had never held public office, was a departure for Interior secretaries who are usually politicians.
No Interior secretary had ever come from the outdoor recreation industry, much less a $1.8 billion retailer with more than 120 stores nationwide. But recreation industry officials say the choice is natural because Interior's trails, rivers and parks drive outdoor spending.
"For years, we in the outdoor industry have been looking for balance and equal footing in the conversation about what's the most important role for public lands," Sterling said. "The fact that President Obama chose a business leader from the outdoor industry says that he recognizes that."
The Outdoor Industry Association, based in Boulder, Colo., estimates Americans spend $646 billion a year on outdoor recreation, including off-highway vehicles, supporting 6.1 million jobs and paying $80 billion in state and national tax revenue. Frank Hugelmeyer, the group's president, said Americans spend more on outdoor equipment than they do on pharmaceuticals or cars.
"This is really part of the new West economy happening," Hugelmeyer said in an interview. "The president is recognizing the importance of the economic engines around recreation and that the need right now for someone to come into the Department of Interior and make sure the nation's public lands infrastructure remains a critical and crucial component of America's economic recovery."
The association, which includes REI as a member, last year opened a new office in D.C. with a staff of five. The group spent $320,000 in lobbying in 2012 on issues from trade and tax policy to supporting the Land and Water Conservation Fund, recreation forums and roadless protections on national forests.
The group this year said it will lobby hard for the National Park Service ahead of the park system's 100th anniversary in 2016 and reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for the acquisition of land, conservation easements on private tracts and grants for states to promote urban recreation.
Other outdoor companies have stepped up efforts to conserve lands and waters they deem critical to their customers.
Orvis Company Inc. last month announced plans to put its marketing and fundraising might into opposing a sprawling open-pit mine proposed for Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed, pledging to match customer donations up to a total of $50,000 (Greenwire, March 14).
While Jewell is keenly aware of the link between public lands and recreation spending, she'll also work to balance conservation with the interests of energy companies, miners and loggers, Hugelmeyer said.
"She's someone who listens very well and will be looking for the proverbial win-win," he said. "There will be thousands of stakeholders that need to be balanced."
ORV enthusiasts wary
In one of her first speeches as secretary last week, Jewell told the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association that she looks forward to introducing more Americans to the national parks, warning that there is a "growing disconnect" between people and nature (Greenwire, April 17).
"How do we make the experiences of parks relevant?" Jewell asked at the group's annual awards gala in D.C., days after she resigned as vice chairwoman of the NPCA board. "How do we bring the outdoors into people's everyday lives? How do we get people to a local park so that they will actually aspire to go to a national park and recognize that this is their public land?"
Jewell this morning appeared alongside NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, outdoor retail officials and youth conservation leaders to celebrate National Park Week at Prince William Forest Park near D.C.
But groups including the BlueRibbon Coalition, an Idaho-based group that advocates for motorized trail access, said Jewell's work at REI and NPCA is a "worrisome" sign that she will favor some users of public lands at the expense of others.
NPCA has lobbied and litigated against the use of off-highway vehicles in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Big Cypress National Preserve in southwest Florida and Yellowstone National Park and has opposed the use of Jet Skis and other motorized watercraft at national lakeshores and seashores in Michigan and the Gulf Coast.
"We hope that in her first role as a public servant we see Sally Jewell balancing her personal predisposition to nonmotorized recreation with legally supportable and just-as-popular forms of motorized recreation on both park and non-park lands," said Greg Mumm, the group's executive director.
Brian Hawthorne, the coalition's public lands policy director, said Jewell worked with motorized groups in a 2012 outdoor recreation survey and appears willing to include diverse stakeholders. He said he is hopeful she will streamline oversight of recreation at the Bureau of Land Management.
"Current policy is overly bureaucratic, expensive to the agency to implement and is unfair to the organized 'social clubs' that the agency needs to help manage recreational trails," he said.
Big test looms in Utah
One of Jewell's first balancing acts will be in Utah, where conservation groups continue to wage a legal battle against six resource management plans crafted by BLM under the Bush administration. Green groups say those plans are wildly unbalanced in favor of oil and gas development and off-highway vehicle use (Greenwire, Sept. 7, 2012).
So far, the Obama administration has defended the Bush plans in court, to the dismay of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a plaintiff in the case.
"I think it'd be clear that Ms. Jewell would understand how off-road vehicle use is a threat to nonmotorized users," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based group. "There's been enormous disappointment within the public lands community about this administration so far."
Groene said conservationists are also urging the Obama administration to vigorously fight a legal bid by Utah and its counties to acquire rights of way covering 35,000 miles of dirt roads and trails, including stream bottoms, across federal lands. Utah's Kane County won an early battle last month when a federal district judge in Utah ruled that management of a dozen dirt roads -- including four running through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument -- belongs to the county, not BLM (Greenwire, March 25).
Sterling, of the Conservation Alliance -- which last year gave SUWA $50,000 to help it fight Utah's plan to seize ownership of 30 million acres of federal lands in the state -- said Jewell's commitment to the outdoor recreation industry will be measured, in part, by how hard she pushes the president to designate national monuments.
"They're going to do monuments that people want and are supported at the grass-roots level," Sterling said. "The interesting thing will be how hard are they going to push on monuments that might not make everyone happy on the local level but in the long term are going to be the right thing to do for conservation and outdoor recreation."
The Outdoor Industry Association last November sent a letter to the president urging him to use his Antiquities Act authority to protect 1.4 million acres in Utah surrounding Canyonlands National Park, an area it described as a "geologic wonderland and a treasure trove of ancient cultural and archaeological artifacts" (E&ENews PM, Nov. 13, 2012).
"It is our hope that when they understand this is an economic issue that is supported by industry, by companies small and large, that they'll sit up and think maybe there is something to this," Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, an OIA member based in Salt Lake City, said at the time.
Utah's Republican lawmakers immediately panned the proposal, urging Obama to defer to Congress to designate monuments, a process they argued would be more accountable and transparent to the public.
Obama designated nine monuments during Salazar's term, though only one of those -- the 243,000-acre Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico -- was considered a landscape-scale victory for conservationists.
'One size doesn't fit all'
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation and a fierce critic of the Obama administration's lands policies, said he will give Jewell the benefit of the doubt that she will balance conservation with development "until she proves me otherwise."
"Her job was not to be fair or balanced," Bishop said of Jewell's years at the helm of REI. "Her job was to make money for her company, and she did that well."
But he added, "She's never been in a position in which she's had to balance competing interests."
Jewell's business expertise, combined with her past work as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp. and two decades as a corporate banker, earned her credibility among Republican senators during her path to confirmation.
While Jewell has pledged to fight for conservation, she has also made early overtures to energy developers, pledging in an online video Monday that her experience as an engineer for Mobil Oil taught her that "one size doesn't fit all" for energy regulations.
She said she intends to release a revised BLM rule to regulate hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas "fairly soon" but that she's comfortable the technique can be performed safely.
"Fracking as a technique has been around for decades," Jewell said. "I have performed the procedure myself very safely."