Sizing Up Sally Jewell
The new Interior Secretary has an impressive résumé. Oil geologist, banker, president of REI. But today's Washington is a landscape without maps, and in this age of climate change and keystone, the major battles are taking place over at the EPA and State. Is greatness still possible at Interior?
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THE INTERIOR SECRETARY recognized the jacket and boots I wore to her office. Four months earlier she’d been selling them.
“They let you in here wearing that?” Sally Jewell said, giving the once-over to my North Face soft shell and Zamberlan hiking boots.
Jewell, the former REI chief executive who is now in charge of one-fifth of the U.S. landmass, 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate, 1.7 billion acres of offshore territory, 401 national parks, 561 national wildlife refuges, 476 bureau of reclamation dams, 2,055 endangered or threatened species, and the maintenance of good relations with 566 American Indian tribes, smiled and led me into her working quarters.
“Holy shit,” I couldn’t help but blurt out.
The office of the Secretary of the Interior has long been one of the most formidable redoubts in the federal government. In scope the corner suite rivals the state of Montana—if Big Sky Country were carpeted in royal blue.
“I know,” Jewell said. “I’m still getting used to the size of it.”
The same could be said of Jewell’s new job, which the sinewy, silver-haired, 57-year-old executive took over in early April. In the 164-year history of the Interior Department, no incoming secretary has faced such a steep learning curve. Last December, she had nothing more pressing on her mind than the holiday sales figures at Recreational Equipment Incorporated, the outdoor-gear cooperative she’d run for the past eight years. Then came a phone call from President Barack Obama, who offered an upgrade she couldn’t refuse.
“This is the one job I would have left REI for,” she told me. “I’m not sure there’s another one out there.”
If the offer was a surprise to Jewell, it was equally unexpected to members of the capital’s chattering class, none of whom had Jewell on the list of likely successors to Ken Salazar, Obama’s first-term Interior boss. With zero political experience and an eclectic three-phase career (petroleum engineer, banker, outdoor retailer), Jewell gave everyone something to love—and to worry about. The American Petroleum Institute liked her oil-field experience. The Natural Resources Defense Council saw (it hoped) a nominee with “the heart of an environmentalist and the know-how of a business woman.”
For the outdoor industry, her appointment brought long-sought recognition of recreation’s place on public lands. Here was a cabinet secretary whose adventure résumé rivaled her executive CV. She’s climbed Antarctica’s Vinson Massif, and she summited Mount Rainier the first of seven times at age 16. “This is a paradigm change, not just for our industry but for America,” says Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf, who once shared a rope with Jewell on Liberty Bell, a classic climb in the North Cascades. “Secretary of the interior is traditionally a job given with a nod to industries like oil and gas or ranching. Today, much of the GNP on public lands comes from non-extractive industries like recreation, tourism, and ecological services.” Now, Metcalf says, “politics have finally caught up with reality.”
“You’ve got somebody who fundamentally gets the fact that there’s a huge economic stream” flowing from protected wildlands, says Adam Cramer, who heads the outdoor alliance, an industry group that lobbies for recreation and conservation. “Oil, gas, timber, and grazing aren’t the only ways to make money from the federal estate.”
President Obama agrees. “She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” he said in announcing Jewell’s nomination. “She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress—that, in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.”
In a nod to her passion for the outdoors, Obama said, “For Sally, the toughest part of this job will probably be sitting behind a desk.”
Hardly. The toughest part may be keeping Interior relevant at a time when the biggest environmental battles are being fought on the turf of rival agencies. Jewell has plenty on her plate, to be sure. In the next three years, her department will set new rules for fracking on federal land, oversee the first offshore Atlantic wind installations, decide whether to list hundreds of proposed endangered species, double the number of renewable-energy projects on public land, regulate offshore Alaskan oil exploration, and defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) against the ever present threat of oil and gas exploration. But the signature green campaigns of Obama’s second term are being waged by the Environmental Protection agency, where carbon regulation will be shaped, and, of all places, the state Department, which will help decide the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Oh, and there’s one other thing on her to-do list. Interior secretaries traditionally bear the burden of establishing a president’s environmental legacy. Stewart Udall, the secretary under both Kennedy and Johnson, created the Canyon Lands and North Cascades National Parks and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and he oversaw passage of the Wilderness Act. Walter Hickel, Richard Nixon’s Interior head, saved the Everglades when developers wanted to turn it into the world’s largest airport. Under Bill Clinton, Bruce Babbitt gave the department a transfusion of environmental values and created the National Landscape Conservation System, which helps safeguard 27 million acres of BLM land. Even Dirk Kempthorne, George W. Bush’s second-term secretary, managed to create the world’s largest marine protected area, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.
So far, Obama’s legacy is muddled at best. If he left office tomorrow, he’d be known for his ramp-up of renewable energy, for being not as bad as W., and for not much else. When I first spoke with Jewell, she was still emerging from senate confirmation mode: smile and speak only in vague platitudes. “I’m finding my way with a lot of help from the people here at Interior,” she told me. “My primary focus has been on listening. Listening to what’s been done before me, listening to the mistakes that others have made. Listening to the president and his agenda, and considering the role that Interior can play.” It wasn’t a bad early strategy: ears open, mouth shut. But before long, Jewell would have to stop listening and start acting. Because she faces one of the biggest challenges in Washington: creating an environmental legacy for a president who seems indifferent about having one.
When Obama took office in early 2009, environmentalists’ hopes were over the moon. The ruinous record of his predecessor was best summed up by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who predicted that “George W. Bush will go down as the worst environmental president in U.S. history.” Much of the damage had taken place in and through the Department of the Interior, which, under Gale Norton, had become a den of corruption.
Bush’s appointees made oil and gas leasing their top priority, demoting conservation-minded managers, harassing scientists, cutting secret deals, partying with drilling executives, and encouraging greasy lobbyists like “Casino Jack” Abramoff, who scammed Indian tribes on casino deals, to roam the halls of Interior headquarters at 18th and C. In 2006, Inspector General Earl Devaney, charged with making sure Interior officials followed the law, summed up the situation under Norton: “simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.”
In 2007, Steven Griles, Norton’s right-hand man, was sentenced to federal prison for obstructing the investigation into the Abramoff scandal. Abramoff himself pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion. Norton was later investigated but never charged over unrelated conflict-of-interest questions raised about leases won by the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, for whom she went to work upon leaving Interior.
To rehab the department, Obama chose Ken Salazar, a Colorado rancher and an old friend from the Senate. The day Salazar was sworn in, White house chief of staff Rahm Emanuel walked up to Tom Strickland, Salazar’s deputy secretary, poked him in the chest, and said, “Clean up that mess.”
Salazar took out the trash. He immediately withdrew 77 oil and gas leases in Utah’s red-rock country—more than 100,000 acres—auctioned off in the final days of the Bush administration (and made famous by eco-activist Tim DeChristopher, who was imprisoned for false bidding) and revised leasing rules to prevent another Utah debacle. He issued a 20-year ban on new uranium mining around the Grand Canyon. He also moved quickly to appoint conservation-minded directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. Fish and Wildlife began moving dozens of stalled endangered-species listings through the evaluation process.
Job one for Salazar, though, was renewable energy. Solar and wind projects had been back-burnered by Bush’s BLM officials; for eight years, not a single solar project had been approved. Declaring Interior “the real department of energy,” Salazar replaced Bush’s “drill, baby, drill” policy with a shine-and-spin initiative. He fast-tracked 35 solar, wind, and geothermal projects—capable of generating 10,500 megawatts, enough to power 1.6 million U.S. homes—and approved offshore wind turbines along the Atlantic coast. When conservationists raised alarms about flyways turning into bird blenders and solar projects destroying desert tortoise habitat, Salazar responded with a siting process, called smart from the start, that identified appropriate zones for future renewables development.
That didn’t slow down oil and gas production. In Obama’s first three years, his all-of-the-above energy strategy produced more oil than Bush did in his final three years. The BLM approved about 4,000 drilling permits per year—down from the record number issued under Bush, but twice the permitting rate of the 1990s. Oil and gas data are notoriously susceptible to political skewing, but to get a real sense, look to the number of leases challenged by grassroots groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. SUWA went bonkers during the Bush years, protesting hundreds of leases in fragile habitat. In 2009, 47 percent of all leases sold were challenged in federal court by environmental groups. By 2012, that number had fallen to 18 percent.
Like Obama, Salazar was just moderate enough to infuriate conservative critics and disappoint environmental allies. When Fish and Wildlife listed the polar bear as endangered in 2008, Kempthorne infamously slipped in a rule prohibiting the government from using the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, the very cause of the bear’s decline. Salazar froze Kempthorne’s order—but ultimately allowed the controversial clause to stand. After breaking up the inept Minerals Management Service in the wake of BP’s Deepwater horizon spill, he let Shell conduct oil exploration in Alaska’s rough and risky Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
Overall, environmental advocates seemed to give Obama passing grades: a B minus or a solid C. “I had high hopes for this administration,” says Jamierappaport Clark, executive director of Defenders of Wildlife and the head of Fish and Wildlife under Bruce Babbitt during President Clinton’s second term. “From an imperiled-wildlife and conservation stand-point, the first term has been disappointing. It’s hard to look back and see anything bold, aggressive, or earth-shattering.”
“Interior needs a visionary, not a mechanic,” SUWA legislative director Richard Peterson-Cremer wrote when Salazar stepped down. “The Obama administration has a real opportunity to change its course on public lands. The question is not whether it has time enough and space—it does—but whether it has will enough and steel.”
“I’VE BEEN TOLD that coming up to speed in this job is like drinking from a fire hose,” Jewell told a gathering of Interior Department employees in Portland, Oregon, in June. “Actually, I’ve found that it’s more like a water main.”
The line drew chuckles from the friendly, if skeptical, DOI bureaucrats. They’d seen secretaries come and go. Many of the department’s 70,000 employees were hired during the Babbitt years, and a few are old enough to remember the 22-month term of James Watt, the Reagan appointee who still holds the crown as the most environmentally destructive interior secretary in history. Billed as a meet-the-boss session, Jewell’s day in Portland was a chance for her to shake hands and make friends in the field offices. Unlike Salazar, who arrived with dozens of allies in the senate and installed his own “Colorado mafia” of well-seasoned appointees, Jewell had to build a network from scratch, working rooms like the Portland federal-building auditorium. There, 150 staffers spread themselves in agency-specific clusters: Bureau of Indian Affairs officials over here, Fish and Wildlife biologists over there, BLM folks in the back. “Anybody from the Park service?” Jewell asked. “No? Well, I guess it is the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. They’re kind of busy.” a natural informality attends to her. Give Jewell a lectern and she’ll avoid it. Offer the choice between a hike and a backroom one-on-one, she’ll lace up her boots. She connects with personal stories, not policy. And so, in Portland, she spoke about her life.
Born in England, she moved to Seattle at age three when her father, Peter Roffey, took a fellowship in anesthesiology at the University of Washington Medical School. Eager to fit in, Roffey became REI member #17249 and bought his first tent from alpinist Jim Whittaker. Young Sally Roffey spent weekends hiking in the Cascades and sailing the family’s eight-foot dinghy on Puget Sound. “We used to camp everywhere we went,” she recalled.
At the University of Washington, she studied mechanical engineering and met her future husband, Warren Jewell, a fellow engineering student. After graduation, the pair took jobs with Mobil Oil in the roughneck fields of southern Oklahoma. She enjoyed the work, but it was the oil business in the seventies, and the glass ceiling hung low. “I wanted to work on offshore oil rigs, but Mobil wouldn’t allow any women on their rigs, except in Norway,” she told Interior employees in Portland. “I figured that was a long way to go for work.”
Then she heard that banks were hiring engineers to help evaluate oil and gas investments. She and Warren wanted to move back to the Pacific Northwest, so she talked her way into a job with Seattle-based rainier bank. The oil boom was showing signs of shakiness, but two rival Seattle institutions, Rainier and Seattle First National bank (Seafirst), continued to lay heavy bets. Jewell steered Rainier away from a number of bad investments, and when oil went bust in the mid-1980s, Seafirst collapsed. Jewell became known as the woman who saved Rainier Bank.
There are certain kinds of people who hire on as interns and, within a few years, end up running the place. Jewell’s rise was like that. By the late 1980s, she was overseeing Rainier’s entire loan portfolio, and when she left in 1992 to join West One Bank, a smaller regional operation, she was CEO of its Washington subsidiary within a year. Meanwhile, she was raising two children, Peter and Anne, both now grown and living in Seattle. her style wasn’t aggressive or brash; rather, say colleagues, she comes across as sensible and polite. “Sally is able to judge situations in a very sophisticated way,” says Seattle attorney William Gates Sr., who is the father of the Microsoft founder and served with Jewell on the UW board of regents. “She’s a person who very often has the right answer for the question under discussion.”
REI recruited Jewell to its board in 1996, attracted by her combination of backcountry experience and banking savvy. By 2005, she was CEO. REI was a foundering ship at the time, burdened by too much debt and knocked on its heels by an ill-advised foray into Japan. Jewell closed the overseas outlet, paid down the debt (the co-op now has none), and embarked on a slow national expansion, opening a handful of well-chosen, self-financed stores every year, including a 39,000-square-foot Manhattan base camp in 2011. Last year the company’s website and 127 stores reported revenue of $1.9 billion, making it the biggest consumer cooperative in the nation.
Meanwhile, Jewell pushed a triple-bottom-line ethos that emphasized environmental ethics and employee relations as much as profit and loss. That’s Jewell’s strong suit: getting the best out of people, but in a low-key way. “She was always asking questions, soliciting points of view,” says Camelbak chief executive Sally McCoy, who worked with Jewell on the industry-supported wildlands group Conservation alliance.
One of Jewell’s favorite books is Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie’s guide to fostering creativity within a corporate bureaucracy. It’s an idea she’s pushing at Interior. “Did you know the engineers at hoover Dam are buying spare parts on eBay because nobody makes them anymore?” she asked her staffers. “If there’s something you’re doing as part of your job that makes no sense, tell me about it. Raise a holler. One of the things I told everyone at REI was: We’ve got to stop doing things that don’t make sense and concentrate on the things that do.” Let me help you do your job better: that’s the message going out to the field from Madame secretary. “I’m a businessperson,” Jewell told her troops. “I’ve got 30 years in business and two months in the federal government.” a lot of people do outstanding work at Interior, she said. “I want you to know I’ve got your back.” she let that hang for a moment, leaving unsaid the second half of the sentence: and I’m hoping you’ll have mine.
To do what exactly wasn’t yet clear.
ON MOST WEEKDAY mornings, Sally Jewell walks to work under the haunting eyes of her predecessors. Along the hall outside her office hang large oil paintings of Salazar, Norton, Watt, and the rest, and in the lobby there’s a bust of Udall, widely acknowledged as the greatest interior secretary of the modern era.
In case Jewell doesn’t feel the weight, every once in a while a former secretary will pop up with some unsolicited advice.
Hello, Bruce Babbitt! In a bit of exquisite timing, Babbitt, the most influential secretary since Udall, issued a challenge to Obama 24 hours before the president nominated Jewell. “So far, under President Obama, industry has been winning the race,” he said during a speech at the National Press Club. “Over the past four years, the [oil and gas] industry has leased more than 6 million acres, compared with only 2.6 million acres permanently protected. In the Obama era, land conservation is again falling behind.”
Babbitt called for a one-for-one scheme that would protect an acre of public land for every acre put up for lease.
It’s an idea worth considering, but it also relies on a bygone metric. Environmentalism has expanded beyond its traditional protect-the-land-and-water paradigm. These days, the movement has become as much about energy and carbon, and that expanded focus has sent policy beyond the neat boundaries of Interior. The State Department is doing the environmental analysis for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (because the pipe, which would deliver Canadian tar-sands oil to Gulf Coast refineries, crosses an international border), which effectively gives Obama the sole up-or-down vote. Interior has criticized state’s characterization of the pipeline’s wildlife impact as “inaccurate,” and in June the president said he’ll OK Keystone only “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
“Significantly”—that’s a word that allows a lot of room to operate.
Obama said this while announcing his climate-change initiative, a series of moves that bypass Congress and deal with global warming through executive orders. Interior plays a part—the president called for a redoubling of renewable-energy development on federal land—but most of the action will continue to happen at the EPA, which ran point on carbon under first-term administrator Lisa Jackson. The centerpiece of Obama’s climate initiative is an EPA-led clampdown on carbon pollution from power plants, which accounts for more than a third of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. It remains to be seen whether Obama has the will to follow through; the president backed Jackson on a number of clean-air initiatives, but in 2011 he caved on tougher smog standards after big polluters screamed job loss—as they’re already doing on the power-plant rule.
As if to underscore the centrality of the EPA—not Interior—to the president’s environmental agenda, senate republicans let Jewell’s nomination proceed while blocking Obama’s second-term EPA nominee, Gina McCarthy, for 136 days before confirming her in early July. a tough-talking Bostonian who ran Jackson’s clean-air team, McCarthy wasted little time in declaring that “we will act” to cut carbon pollution. She followed up on that pledge in September, when the EPA proposed new rules capping carbon emissions from new coal and natural-gas power plants. Similar caps for existing plants—where the real battle will come—are expected in 2014.
Jewell and McCarthy may end up playing good cop, bad cop for Obama on climate change—Jewell the gentle reconciler in a fleece jacket, McCarthy the brassy brawler straight out of The Departed. It’s a good match, because the EPA will surely draw more fire than Interior. Reducing emissions hits polluters in the wallet; expanding renewables offers the promise of profit. And Jewell’s confirmation led no one to believe that she’d pull back on oil and gas development. “We will continue to pursue the president’s all-of-the-above energy strategy,” she said at her senate hearing, and she hammered the point for months thereafter.
Inevitably, Jewell’s charm offensive has to give way to tough policy decisions if she wants to be something more than a caretaker. She’s not going to be the second coming of Udall—nobody will. What saint stew wanted, he got, thanks to a compliant Congress, an open checkbook, and a president preoccupied with Vietnam. Since Jewell took office, she’s confronted an insanely hostile Congress, a government shutdown that closed the parks, and a boss whose environmental commitment seems to come and go.
Is there still room for greatness at Interior? Bruce Babbitt thinks so. “Sally Jewell has the background, she has the national constituency, and she has the president’s confidence,” he told me over the phone from his office in Washington. Babbitt, now semi-retired, ticked off those qualities as if they were tools in a Jobox—here’s your hammer, there’s your tape and nails, get to work. “She has a fantastic opportunity to address a number of important issues.”
SO WHAT WOULD a Jewell legacy look like? “I don’t think about my own legacy,” she told me back in June. “I do think about a legacy for President Obama.” Exactly what that might be remained an open question. The answers began to come 111 days into her term, when the secretary pivoted from listening to leading. At a speech given at DOI headquarters and webcast to field offices nationwide, she laid out the top priorities. The more traditional goals included ramping up renewable-energy production, repairing the Native American education system, and addressing looming water catastrophes like the massively overburdened Colorado River. Jewell told staffers her agenda wasn’t “radically different than what you’ve been doing. Maybe a little tweaking, a little change.”
On climate, she showed that she can be bold. “I hope there are no climate-change deniers in the Department of the Interior,” she said to her team. “If you don’t believe in it, come out into the resources. Come out to Alaska, which is melting. Go in to the sierra,” which is losing its snowpack. It was a strong, clear message that raised howls among fringe denialists but provided cover to the scientists and biologists in Interior’s ranks.
We could use more of that straight-up fact facing, the courage to point at a cow pie and call it bullshit. Specifically, Jewell has a rare opportunity when it comes to oil and gas regulations. Interior’s proposed rules for fracking on federal land are a joke, modeled on a template put out several years ago by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative bill mill backed in part by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Jewell commands both the respect of the drilling guys—she knows how to frack a well herself—and the support of environmentalists; she’s in a unique position to give the regulations real teeth.
Ditto the rules for siting oil and gas leases on fragile lands. An early test will come in Utah, where the BLM has proposed 82 leases for the San Rafael swell, a recreationally important and biologically rich region often mentioned for monument designation. The leases, scheduled for auction in November, pin Jewell between her oil experience and her conservationist leanings. When I asked her about the skepticism with which outdoor enthusiasts usually greet drilling, she struck a decidedly non-Babbittian tone. “I think it’s important for people to step back and look at their own lifestyle and acknowledge that it’s difficult if not impossible to not be a user of fossil fuels,” Jewell told me. “Most outdoor recreationists drive to a destination. Some walk softer than others, but we all have an impact. It’s important to understand that and not vilify the industries that we rely upon.”
Other issues are also going to intersect oil and gas. She’s unlikely to halt the full delisting of the gray wolf, but her leadership could either cause or avert a legal train wreck over the possible listing of the greater sage grouse, a bird whose habitat of existing and potential oil fields could make it the spotted owl of the Intermountain West.
Much of the action during Jewell’s term will happen in Alaska: the ANWR stalemate will likely continue, and Obama shows no signs of slowing Shell’s push into the Chukchi Sea. But Jewell has real power when it comes to Bristol Bay, breeding ground for the world’s most productive salmon runs. It’s an airport-or-Everglades issue. One of two global conglomerates planning a gold mine there pulled out of the project this fall. Jewell and Obama could build on that momentum by creating a wildlife refuge or national monument on federal land. It wouldn’t stop the mine (which is on state land), but it would throw up roadblocks. “If you’re going to allow offshore leasing in Alaska, there ought to be offsetting designations of protected areas,” Babbitt says. “Using the Antiquities Act to protect Bristol Bay is a great opportunity.”
Those are the traditional big gets for Jewell’s term. But the question remains: What does she want her legacy to be?
THE KEY to Sally Jewell is that there’s no grand ideology at work. She’s neither neocon nor neolib. She doesn’t align herself with the Aldo Leopold school of conservation or the Bill McKibben carbon-fighting corps. Policy is driven by the personal and the pragmatic. She’s got to get on the ground and see what’s going on, paddle Rhode Island’s Blackstone River, as she did in May; handle an invasive boa in the Everglades (April); or circle Washington’s Squaxin Island, as she does every New Year’s Day in her kayak. She’s worked on the Alaska pipeline; she knows the benefits oil companies can bring, and she knows the environmental harm they can wreak. Most of all, she knows what outdoor exposure did for her as a girl, so she wants to spread the gospel of adventure among the next generation.
That commitment was on display on an early June morning in D.C., when the secretary of the interior went fishing with some kids on the Anacostia River.
“How many of you have ever been fishing?” Jewell asked. A few hands went up. “How many have ever been out on the river?” Fewer hands. Their parents and grandparents didn’t use the river because, back in the day, the Anacostia was a veritable sewer. Now that it’s clean—er, cleaner—the kids don’t use it because it’s not connected to a screen.
Once the kids were herded onto a tour boat, Jewell encouraged the youngsters to bait hooks, cast carefully, reel in, and see what they’d caught. She did her best work one-on-one, talking with young girls about the outdoors, and life, and siblings, and school, and whatever. Away from the microphones, the old silver-haired white lady actually forged a connection with a couple of young African-American girls. They spoke in low voices, with long, natural silences. As they baited a hook, one girl asked, “Doesn’t that hurt the worm?”
Jewell paused before answering. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I suppose it does.”
It wasn’t a politician’s answer. The words seemed to startle Jewell even as they came out of her mouth. But they also earned the respect of the girl, who considered the information, then continued spearing the nightcrawler.
If there is anywhere that Jewell wants to have a lasting impact, it’s here, with the next generation. “This is one heck of a platform,” she told me in her office, “to help people understand about our planet, about our public lands, about the role they play in caring for our resources.”
Indeed, when she laid out her goals for the department in July, the last two were these: “celebrating and enhancing America’s great outdoors” and luring the millennial generation into the wilds.
That first part refers to the America’s great outdoors Initiative, a fuzzy, feel-good effort created during Obama’s first term. The idea was to connect an increasingly urban, plugged-in citizenry with its public land and waterways—but nobody on Salazar’s team figured out how to give it purpose and clarity. As Jewell receives it, America’s great outdoors can become whatever she wants it to be.
She can use it to lure more Hispanics and African-Americans into the parks, to expand the constituency of the outdoors. And she can use it to get kids to unplug. Last Child in the Woods, journalist Richard Louv’s exploration of kids’ increasing disconnection from the natural world, is a touchstone book for Jewell, and she’s determined to use her bully pulpit to fight the syndrome Louv calls nature-deficit disorder.
This is where Jewell’s true passion lies, and she’s already made it a top priority. There are easy fixes she can make: she can direct park and refuge managers to reconceptualize their most accessible areas to attract underserved communities. She can empower young Park Service rangers and reach the millennials where they live, on social media. But she has an opportunity to go even bigger, to create a signature program under her watch. To do that, she could revamp Interior’s partnership with the Student Conservation Association, which provides high school and college students paid, hands-on internships in parks and wilderness areas. SCA is one of America’s greatest programs, but it’s largely unknown outside of outdoor culture. It could become a public-service option as famous as teach for America or a brand as strong as outward bound. Franklin Roosevelt had the Civilian Conservation Corps; a supersized SCA could be Obama’s next-gen public-works project. With a one-month stint in SCA, you’ll hook a kid on the outdoors for life.
Youth and climate change: those could be the overriding themes of a great Jewell administration—and the foundation of Obama’s environmental legacy.
“We need warriors for that battle on climate change,” Jewell told me when I caught up with her again in July, at a youth summit in Seattle. The secretary seemed clear and confident in her message. “If I don’t get these young people engaged, they’re not going to care about and support the outdoors. I only have three and a half years. So I gotta get going.”