It was a brilliant blue Saturday on October 10 in northern New Mexico, and Sally Jewell, in from Washington, D.C., had just finished leading the dedication ceremony of Valles Caldera National Preserve. The 89,000-acre park became a unit of the National Park Service in December 2014 and is one of seven areas that have been transferred to federal control—in an effort to encourage more visitors—since Jewell took command in April 2013.
“This is land that has the potential to educate Americans and people around the world about how to live in harmony with nature and how to learn from nature,” Jewell said. The area is a dormant supervolcano 13 miles in diameter once frequented by Native American tribes hunting elk and gathering obsidian. It was first purchased for protection in 2000 using $101 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress allowed to expire last month. Jewell is frustrated about it. “We want that reauthorized, and frankly, it needs to be funded at the level it was originally intended.”
Lately Jewell’s focus has been occupied by these types of major land transfers, but the former chief executive with REI, still knows gear. After the ceremony, Jewell stepped off the stage and pointed out that my wool blazer was too warm for the weather (she was right). When I asked her what she wore for her hike that morning, Jewell gamely turned her back toward me, rolled down the waistband of her synthetic pants, and asked her attending aide what was written on the tag.
“Blake, what’s the brand of these pants?”
“Royal Robbins,” he replied.
“Royal Robbins pants, there you go,” Jewell said. “It’s rare for me to not have anything REI on, but that’s in the car. My jacket is REI.”
During a quick conversation, Jewell talked to Outside about her plans for what may be her final year in her position, offered advice to the outdoor industry, and spoke at length about gear.
OUTSIDE: You went on a hike this morning with park staff, right? What did you wear?
JEWELL: Well, I didn’t really go on a hike. I went on a stroll with park service staff, who were teaching me about this resource, the science that’s going on here, the archeology, the geology, what’s happening in the ecosystems. We walked two miles, tops. I’m wearing SmartWool socks, Ahnu shoes, a Columbia top, and a cotton t-shirt. I won’t get into my underwear.
Yeah, I know. It’s teal and it goes with my jewelry.
Should your appointment end with the change of presidents, what are your vacation plans?
Well, I get to come to places like Valles Caldera for a few hours, but I have very little chance to get out. So my dream is to take my car and my husband from D.C. and make a slow drive back [west] across the country.
A road trip?
A road trip with our backpacking gear, our camping gear, and actually dive into this country in a way that I’ve had a taste of, but I haven’t had a real drink from because of the nature of my job. If the job ends in January of 2017 with the inauguration, that’s about the right time to make my way through the South and come up through parts of the Southwest in the spring, get back to [my former hometown of] Seattle in the summertime.
So, back to Seattle?
Oh, yes. And then jump on my boat and sail north in the Inside Passage. I’ve been paying a lot of moorage fees for years that I haven’t been getting much enjoyment out of.
With your job, I’m sure you’re not getting outside as much as you want to. Any tips for readers who might feel the same?
I’d say make time for it. If I have a day, if I have a half-day, we’ve got a group of hiking buddies. Sometimes there are as many as a dozen. We hike in Shenandoah National Park, we hike in Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, we hike in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We do George Washington National Forest. We go out on the battlefields and hike in Manassas and Antietam and Gettysburg, and learn about the history. So I get out, even if it’s just for a few hours. One of our traditions has been to find a local winery and take a picnic afterwards.
How does East Coast wine taste compared to the West?
Every wine tastes good after a long day’s hiking.
Assuming you have one year left, what issues take priority?
The Land and Water Conservation Fund. There has not been a more effective piece of legislation in protecting special places and providing access to recreation, from ball fields and natural areas within urban spaces, to buying conservation easements for hundreds of anglers, to places like Valles Caldera, which need protection but are in private ownership. So making sure that we get Congress to recognize how important this is, reauthorize it, and find a source of dedicated funding that will ensure that it continues year in, year out.
We have done some incredible work since the Obama administration took over in 2009 in landscape-level conservation. The biggest win in conservation history, in terms of landscape preservation, just happened when the Fish and Wildlife Service said the listing of the greater sage-grouse is not necessary. [It came] because of epic collaboration across 11 states, including private land-owners, federal government, BLM (Bureau of Land Management), and Forest Service—having the largest chunk of the land—working collaboratively with good science, to say this “Sagebrush Sea” is worthy of protection.
Of course, we want to inculcate the notion of a strong government-to-government relationship with Indian country with the 567 federally recognized tribes. In the government across every agency, we want to continue the momentum of working collaboratively with tribes, but I also recognize as a political leader, we don’t go anywhere when we’re out of here if it doesn’t make sense to the career staff in every agency. So the stuff that I talk about—conservation, thoughtful management of resources, engaging the next generation in the outdoors, which we’re doing with our Every Kid in a Park and what we’re doing with our initiative to raise private money to support Youth Conservation Corps crews—all of that stuff will go away if it doesn’t make sense to the career staff. So I’d say what happens in the next 15 months is working with them, listening to them, and making sure the organization is set up to support a lot of this good work going forward.
There’s more and more talk about the outdoor industry and its political voice. What’s your advice to the movement?
It is incredibly important. The outdoor industry needs to be politically active. [Outdoor companies] need to support the candidates that are doing work for them. I did not understand this as much when I was on the [industry] side. The voices are really important because the outdoor industry is $646 billion-dollar industry. It employs over six million people. [Those figures come from a 2012 Outdoor Industry Association report.] That report, state by state, is now used by every member of Congress, and it should be used by the outdoor industry to raise awareness, because the industries that are extractive by nature, that develop, tend to be a lot fewer people—in some cases, not as big an economic impact, but a lot of political clout—and they are very active.
So if people want places like [Valles Caldera], they can’t take for granted that enlightened members of Congress like the ones that were here today are going to carry the water for them. They need to have their back, and they need to make sure all parts of our political system, the far right to the far left, are aware of active outdoor recreation in their districts and in their states, and that voice is carried forward in their actions, and that the industry holds them accountable and raises visibility when they’re supportive or when they’re not. Look at the National Rifle Association and its effectiveness. There are lessons that could be learned by the outdoor industry.
If you had to throw away all of your technical gear and only keep one piece, what’s your can’t-do-without?
In this job, I’d say it’s definitely my REI Flash Pack.
A day pack?
Well, yes. And it’s a stuff sack, and it’s a pillow, and it’s a place I can put my dirty laundry if I want to. It can collapse down and go in my bag, and then when I get an opportunity to get out, I’ve got a pack. I’ve got seven of them. It’s definitely a go-to piece of gear that I’ve used regularly in this job.
Do they recognize you when you go into REI now?
Oh, some do, some don’t. I introduce myself sometimes, sometimes I don’t. Even if I introduce myself, they may know me, they may not. Retail’s got turnover. But I like to fly undercover, so it’s okay by me if nobody has any idea who I am.