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Obama to nominate CEO of outdoor gear retailer REI to become interior secretary

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post
Sally Jewell, former Greenway Trust board president, nominated for secretary of Interior

President Obama on Wednesday will nominate Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) chief executive Sally Jewell to head the Interior Department, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified because the public announcement has not yet been made.

The choice of Jewell, who began her career as an engineer for Mobil Oil and worked as a commercial banker before heading a nearly $2 billion outdoors equipment company, represents an unconventional choice for a post usually reserved for career politicians from the West.

But while she boasts less public policy experience than other candidates who had been under consideration, Jewell, who will have to be confirmed by the Senate, has earned national recognition for her management skills and support for outdoor recreation and habitat conservation.

In 2011 Jewell introduced Obama at the White House conference on “America’s Great Outdoor Initiative,” noting that the $289 billion outdoor-recreation industry supports 6.5 million jobs.

Jewell, who is being nominated to succeed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, would take over at a time when many conservationists are pressing Obama to take bolder action on land conservation. Salazar devoted much of his tenure to both promoting renewable energy on public land and managing the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

On Tuesday former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt gave a speech at the National Press Club calling on the president to set aside one acre permanently for conservation for every acre he leases for oil and gas development.

“It’s that simple: one to one,” Babbitt said. “So far, under President Obama, industry has been winning the race as it obtains more and more land for oil and gas. Over the past four years, the 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.”

Facing congressional opposition and budget constraints during Obama’s first term, Salazar emphasized the importance of enlisting private sector, state and local support to protect major landscapes through America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Jewell emerged as a strong advocate of the policy, and is likely to continue such efforts.

While public lands protection has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, this issue has become increasingly polarized, and the 112th Congress was the first one since 1966 to fail to designate a single piece of wilderness. Environmentalists such as Babbitt have urged Obama to use the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the executive authority to set aside land as national monuments, to protect ecologically valuable areas in the West.

Jewell has pushed for land conservation in Washington state, where she lives, as well as nationally. She is a founding board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, which focuses on a stretch of land from Puget Sound across the Cascades, and helped lay out a plan for the National Park Service as a commissioner on the “National Parks Second Century Commission.”

Conservationists and energy industry officials alike welcomed Jewell’s selection, saying she could balance the competing interests of the department she would oversee if confirmed.

National Park Conservation Association President Tom Kiernan, on whose board Jewell sits, noted that she focused on how to broaden the national park system’s appeal as head of the “Connecting People and Parks Subcommittee” during its planning process. He described her overall approach as being “about connecting people and the out of doors, to the benefit of both.”

Kiernan added that having climbed Mount Rainier with her twice, he had come to appreciate her sound judgment. This past summer, the two were roped together and climbed despite the snow, wind and hail, but when lightning struck, the REI chief declared, “Nope, that was far enough.”

“She perseveres, but also knows when to turn around,” he said.

At the same time, Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said he hoped Jewell would bring a different approach to decision making as interior secretary.

“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 Wigley, whose group represents independent oil and gas producers in the West. “We hope to see a better balance of productive development on non-park, non-wilderness public lands that enhances the wealth of America and creates jobs while protecting the environment.”

By contrast, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who will vote on Jewell’s nomination as the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, suggested that she was withholding judgment on Obama’s pick.

“The livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity,” Murkowski said. “I look forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency, and how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department.”

Wyss Foundation president Molly McUsic, whose group focuses on land conservation, wrote in an e-mail that Jewell “understands the full economic potential of America’s resources.”

“She knows the oil and gas business from having worked at Mobil and in the banking industry, but also understands the growing economic potential of America’s $646 billion outdoor recreation industry,” McUsic added. “She knows that to grow the economy, development of energy resources must be on equal ground with the protection of places that drive tourism, travel, and recreation.”

While Jewell is more closely identified with the Democratic Party than the Republicans, she made a high-profile appearance with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) back in 2008 when he was running for president. McCain spoke with Jewell and others at an environmental policy roundtable outside Seattle, during which the senator argued that he had stronger environmental credentials than either Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton, who were both vying for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time.

Other contenders for the Cabinet position in recent weeks included former Washington governor Christine Gregoire (D), Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

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