When Sally Jewell was sworn in as secretary of the Interior on April 12, 2013, the Beltway outsider needed daily crash courses in how to run the nation’s largest land management agency with its conflicting goals of resource development and conservation.
"It was like studying for a final every night," Jewell said.
But two years into her tenure, Jewell says she’s "conversant" in Interior’s portfolio of wildlife protection, energy development, recreation and historical preservation on roughly one-fifth of the nation’s land, in addition to improving the quality of life for American Indians.
In the next two years, Jewell, 59, said she hopes to make Interior’s mission more relevant to young people and connect more Americans with the outdoors. She plans to implement "more thoughtful planning, more thoughtful regulation" of energy development on the nation’s lands and waters.
"I feel really great about where I am right now, and I feel great about what I think we can get accomplished in the coming two years," Jewell said in an interview with Greenwire. "I feel like I’m beyond the halfway point."
Jewell has a full policy agenda for the remainder of President Obama’s second term. She’ll be overseeing a Bureau of Land Management rule to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands and making tough decisions on whether to allow future offshore drilling, particularly in the Arctic.
She’ll also play a major role in whether the Fish and Wildlife Service deems the greater sage grouse, the bird that has been the subject of much controversy, worthy of federal protections in late September, a decision that could have important ramifications for land use in the West and is almost certain to be challenged in court.
Jewell will also be Obama’s emissary to the West as the White House considers which lands to set aside as national monuments.
Since replacing Ken Salazar, Jewell has seen dozens of sage grouse and has watched polar bears meander across a beach in Kaktovik, Alaska, a battleground in Jewell’s support of wilderness protections in the oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She has overseen the creation of a handful of new national monuments; crafted and finalized new rules for oil and gas exploration on public lands and in the Arctic; and led a major federal-state partnership to preserve sage grouse.
She has also implemented controversial decisions to protect two iconic wildlife refuges in Alaska and cordon off sensitive Arctic waters from future oil and gas drilling — taking fire from an Alaska senator with outsized control over Interior’s programs and budget.
When Jewell inherited Interior, its finances, like those of other federal agencies, were in disarray.
Congress had failed to reach a deficit deal, which triggered across-the-board sequestration cuts to every Interior program, including operation of its more than 400 national park units and approval of oil and gas leases in the West. Jewell, the former CEO of outdoor retailer REI, said then that "you would never run a business this way."
It got worse several months later, in October, when the government shut down for 16 days, shuttering national parks and placing most of Interior’s 70,000 employees on an unwelcome furlough.
"Anything from there is up," Jewell said last month.
Things did improve in late 2013 when then-budget chiefs Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) struck a deal to lift the sequester in 2014 and 2015, helping restore Interior services, Jewell said.
But the sequester is slated to return in fiscal 2016 now that Republicans have taken control of both chambers of Congress, and Jewell is worried.
Barring a deal, Interior’s $13.2 billion request — which includes Jewell’s policy goals to increase conservation funding, boost youth employment and accelerate restoration of sage grouse lands, among others — is "wishful thinking," according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who controls the agency’s budget.
"I’m hopeful Congress will get past sequestration," Jewell said. "For critics and supporters, no one can argue that our economy is in much better shape and that things like the stimulus actually worked."
Fiscal hawks in Congress want to slash Interior’s budget, but privately they "also want something from me that costs money from the Interior’s budget," Jewell said. "So the irony is palpable."
Achievements and embarrassments
Jewell said she’s proud of the Obama administration’s work in Indian Country. She touted Obama’s visit last June to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, the creation in summer 2013 of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, and Interior’s work on improving the Indian education system.
"We are moving beyond random acts of kindness in disparate parts of the budget to Indian Country, and moving to something that’s more focused on supporting what the tribes say they need," Jewell said.
Jewell also touted the Park Service’s efforts to "tell the story of America through our assets" as it seeks to become more relevant to youth and minorities in the run-up to its 2016 centennial.
"We’re really lining ourselves up well to create an environment where a new generation is going to find the national parks more relevant to them in the future than they have in the past," she said.
Jewell was speaking by telephone from Hawaii, where she had joined Gov. David Ige (D) and Hawaii Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono to dedicate Honouliuli National Monument, which Obama designated in February to preserve and interpret Hawaii’s largest and longest-used confinement camp for Japanese Americans, immigrants and prisoners of war during World War II.
Jewell’s Park Service has elevated the stories of other historically marginalized Americans.
It announced a study last May to identify sites of importance to the civil rights struggle of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. In February, Obama created a national monument protecting Chicago’s Pullman historic district, a site of significance for the nation’s labor and civil rights movements that became the first Park Service site in the Windy City.
Obama will continue to use the Antiquities Act in his final years in office, Jewell said.
"We’re making progress where Congress has not been able to," Jewell said. "The president has used his pen judiciously but effectively."
When Congress has passed legislation, it has not always been to Jewell’s liking.
Jewell last December said she was "profoundly" upset that Congress had tucked a provision into a massive public lands package to facilitate a copper mine in Arizona, which Jewell called an affront to American Indians. Jewell later blasted Congress’ decision to block Endangered Species Act protections for sage grouse, assailing members for "political posturing."
Jewell has since brokered major agreements with states, landowners and businesses to preserve the greater sage grouse’s 165 million acres of Western habitat and raised awareness of how disappearing sagebrush will affect hundreds of other species.
The job has offered plenty of time in the field, where Jewell, an avid outdoorswoman, feels at home.
Jewell in late March accompanied Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) on a pre-dawn visit to a sage grouse breeding ground in central Oregon to view the bird’s flamboyant mating ritual. Jewell said she counted 26 grouse.
But Jewell, who has climbed Antarctica’s Vinson Massif and made seven successful summits of Mount Rainier in her home state of Washington, said she has "hardly climbed anything" since taking office.
Her tallest conquests were 4,800-foot Mailbox Peak, outside her Seattle-area home, during a holiday and Shenandoah National Park’s Old Rag Mountain. She said she also takes personal visits to Catoctin Mountain Park in north-central Maryland and hikes around Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C.
"I’m not looking for vertical at this point," she said. "I’m just looking for out — outside."
She will be camping in a national park later this month with her husband, Warren, but wouldn’t say where, "because I don’t want company."
Jewell recalled some embarrassing moments while adjusting to the D.C. spotlight.
In April 2013, a couple of weeks into her tenure and "thinking I was less visible than I actually was," a sweaty Jewell hopped on a Metro train in shorts and a T-shirt, "looking like a real grunge," after moving furniture at her new apartment. She was picking up a pair of glasses and a party purse for that night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner but was quickly recognized by a man who said he was taking photographs for the Canadian Embassy.
"I learned that in these jobs, you’re more on display than you think you are," she said.
Later that day, Jewell was lifting a sofa up the stairs at her apartment with her hair only half done when someone rang her doorbell. It was Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff. He had arrived 30 minutes early.
Cheers and jeers
Interior watchers say Jewell deserves a mixture of praise and criticism for her first two years in office.
"Her grade would be pretty much incomplete at this point, and that’s not a bad thing," said Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a sportsmen’s conservation group.
Fosburgh praised Jewell for advancing protections for sage grouse, modernizing BLM’s land-use planning, expanding the use of landscape-scale mitigation, and reforming oil and gas lease sales.
"These are things that are moving in the right direction and could represent a fundamental change in how our public lands are managed," he said. "But they’re not across the finish line yet."
Jewell has also done a commendable job marshaling Interior’s 70,000 employees around the Obama agenda, prodding some career employees who have been resistant to change, Fosburgh said.
"She’s done a nice job keeping various factions within the department moving in the right direction on sage grouse," Fosburgh said. "She’s been to a large degree the adult in the room making sure everyone moves toward a common goal."
Jewell has been less successful in nurturing relationships on Capitol Hill, Fosburgh said. Salazar, by contrast, was a seasoned politician and former Democratic senator for Colorado who was "probably the most gregarious person on Earth," including on Capitol Hill, Fosburgh said.
"Sally by nature is more of an introvert," Fosburgh said.
Jewell has had a particularly rough relationship with Murkowski, who has hounded Jewell ever since the secretary rejected a proposed road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that Alaskans wanted to improve public safety.
But what Jewell has lacked in political chops, she has made up for with her policy expertise, said Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society.
Rutledge praised Jewell’s depth of understanding of sagebrush habitats in the West and said she’s done an impressive job keeping states at the bargaining table.
"She didn’t just go for a hike with us in the sagebrush," Rutledge said. "She listens, studies and understands the importance."
Others wonder whether Jewell’s work is enough to save the sage grouse.
"Interior’s sage grouse framework is woefully inadequate to the task of preventing extinction, much less [promoting] recovery, of this icon of the West," said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians.
Jewell has come up short on climate change by failing to curb extraction of oil, gas and coal from Interior lands, which, when burned, are a major source of domestic global warming emissions, Horning said.
"If Secretary Jewell wanted a real climate legacy — one to match EPA’s — she’d commit today to keeping some significant percentage of fossil fuels in the ground," Horning said. "Then she’d have the respect of climate activists and the gratitude of countless future generations."
But if she keeps too much of those minerals in the ground, Jewell risks a backlash from fossil fuel groups.
Rebecca Watson, who was Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management during the George W. Bush administration, said commodities industries — grazing and oil and gas, in particular — will "pay the price" for Interior’s efforts to conserve BLM lands for sage grouse.
"Secretary Jewell wants to paint a picture of federal and state cooperation to head off a listing by Interior’s [Fish and Wildlife Service]," she said. "But meanwhile, BLM is moving ahead without the states, according to the schedule set by the victorious environmental hard-liners in litigation."