REI chief: outsider pick for Interior secretary

President Obama Wednesday named REI CEO Sally Jewell as his nominee to replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Selecting a businesswoman instead of a politician is unusual.

By Craig Welch, Jim Brunner and Kyung M. Song, Seattle Times Reporters

When President Obama picked REI’s chief executive to oversee the nation’s public lands, he chose a Seattle businesswoman steeped in Western land issues — a kayaker, skier and climber as familiar with a hard hat as she is with an ice ax.

Sally Jewell, 56, the Kent-based outdoor-retail co-op’s president and CEO, has worked as an oil-field engineer and a commercial banker. She spent years toiling behind the scenes on recreation, national-park and wildland conflicts, under Democratic and Republican presidents.

But Obama’s choice for secretary of the Interior — a post responsible for everything from wildlife refuges and coal leasing to national parks and offhore oil drilling — comes with markedly little experience in the often-combative ways of D.C. politics.

The post of Interior secretary is typically filled by an experienced politician from the West; Jewell has never held elected public office.

Still, her eclectic résumé and reputation as a low-key problem solver were enough to earn her quick praise from politicians and interest groups usually at odds with one another.

Environmental groups, including American Rivers and Trout Unlimited, applauded her conservation ethic, her efforts to find more funding for national parks and her work showing that environmental stewardship is also good for business. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said Jewell has “a demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans — recreation, adventure and enjoyment.”

At the same time, the Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and natural-gas industry in the West, also welcomed Jewell’s nomination.

“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, the group’s president.

None of the applause surprisedRepublican Dirk Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and U.S. senator who served as Interior secretary under President George W. Bush.

“Sally Jewell will be a terrific secretary of the Interior,” Kempthorne said. “She combines a keen intellect with equally keen hearing. She listens well, takes in the information and asks very, very pertinent questions.”

In making the announcement, Obama mentioned Jewell’s deep knowledge — and her relatively thin political résumé — as assets.

“Even as Sally has spent the majority of her career outside of Washington (D.C.) — where, I might add, the majority of our interior is located,” he said, “she is an expert on the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future. … She knows the link between conservation and good jobs.”

In her remarks, Jewell said: “I have a great job at REI today, but there’s no role that compares to the call to serve my country as secretary of the Interior.”

Complex issues await

Jewell is the first woman among Obama’s second-term Cabinet nominees.

The White House had faced criticism that the new Cabinet lacked diversity after Obama tapped a string of white men for top posts. Obama then promised more diverse nominees.

Former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire also had been named as a possible contender for the job.

In an interview with The Seattle Times in 2000, Jewell said she grew up wanting to be “a scientist, an oceanographer, a forest ranger — mostly outdoor-related things.”

If confirmed, she faces no shortage of complex issues.

The Interior Department is responsible for more than 500 million acres of public lands, from Yellowstone National Park to the Lincoln Memorial. It administers the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and is a major player in fighting wildfires.

It oversees the scrublands of the Bureau of Land Management and is responsible for leasing rights to oil, coal, gas and heavy metals even when found under land managed by other departments. Interior employs more than 70,000 people.

Jewell has served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, which for a decade has complained that budgets for the nation’s park system have been pared to the bone.

The next Interior secretary also will play a key role in deciding whether to protect sage grouse under the ESA, a move that would heavily impact oil and gas development in several Rocky Mountain states.

Interior also oversees the dwindling Colorado River, the lifeblood of several states and a source of water for Southern California, and nascent efforts to drill offshore in the Alaskan Arctic.

Jewell also would be thrust into the center of the battle over exporting coal from the Northwest to Asia. Interior oversees the leasing program that, under Obama, has opened more land in Wyoming and Montana to coal extraction just as domestic coal use has declined. That has prompted an industry push for more exports.

Earlier Obama call

Jewell’s pick was praised by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who said in a statement she had worked closely with Jewell on public-land policy and conservation initiatives in Washington state, including the effort to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and create the Wild Sky Wilderness.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ranking Republican on the Senate panel overseeing the Interior Department, offered a noncommittal statement Wednesday, saying she wanted to hear more about Jewell’s qualifications and “how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department.”

A more hostile response came from Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House subcommittee on public lands, who said he had reservations about REI’s links to “special-interest groups” with “radical political agendas.”

Still, Jewell’s confirmation would put a prominent representative from the business community in the president’s Cabinet.

Jewell was born in England, but moved to the Seattle area before age 4 and is a U.S. citizen.

After graduating from the University of Washington with a mechanical-engineering degree, Jewell married and took a job with Mobil Oil, working in the oil fields of Oklahoma.

She spent three years in the industry before moving back to Seattle to work for Rainier Bank in 1981.

“Oil and gas isn’t found in the most pleasant places in the world and, being a woman, there were things I had to put up with that would be considered illegal now, and it just became tiresome. I also wanted to raise my children around grandparents,” she told Seattle Business magazine last year.

In 1996, she became an REI board member. She was named CEO at REI in 2005.

She has been a donor to Obama’s campaigns, and enjoys a bit of a personal relationship with the president. In 2009, she was sailing with her husband off Port Townsend when her daughter called her cellphone to say the president had invited her to the White House.

The president had asked Jewell and other business leaders from around the country to discuss health-care costs.

During the visit, Obama praised REI for providing health insurance for part-time employees, as well as full-time workers.

While Jewell is more closely identified with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, she made a high-profile appearance with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008 when he was running for president.