SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va. — Sally Jewell bounded up a granite boulder near the peak of Old Rag Mountain and turned back to her hiking companion, who was staring up at the smooth rock that offered no obvious hand- or footholds.
“Trust your feet,” she said.
That mountaineer’s mantra has carried Jewell through a lifetime of challenging ascents and a varied career as petroleum engineer, banker and retail executive. On April 12, she was sworn in as the 51st secretary of the interior.
Jewell, 57, who has climbed Mount Rainier seven times along with some of the world’s highest peaks, said she is happiest on the steepest part of the learning curve. A woman of untamed energy, competitiveness and confidence in the boardroom and on a mountain trail, she is undertaking perhaps the greatest challenge of her life as she assumes command of a huge bureaucracy in a city that festers barely above sea level.
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Until President Obama tapped her as interior secretary to succeed Ken Salazar, a former Democratic senator from Colorado, Jewell was chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) in Kent. She has never held elective office, though she has served as a member of the board of trustees of the University of Washington and at a variety of nonprofits. She has spent little time in “the other Washington.”
Like many successful corporate titans who have come to Washington, D.C., before her, she will learn that running a business or a university board is not necessarily adequate training for a top government post. She noted during a five-hour round-trip hike of Old Rag, for example, that no rational business executive would cut an operating budget across the board, as the federal budget process known as the sequester requires. And she said that no matter how determined she is to spend her time promoting outdoor recreation or increasing renewable-energy production, events can rudely intrude.
“You never know what’s going to hit you in a job like this,” she said. “For Secretary Salazar, very unfortunate, but the Deepwater Horizon spill happened relatively early in his term and it took an enormous amount of time and energy that one has to deal with. Things happen. Earthquakes happen. Natural disasters happen. The American West is a tinderbox right now.”
Jewell underwent weeks of grueling briefings for what turned out to be a relatively mild Senate confirmation hearing. The toughest questions from Republicans concerned her role on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, a mainly volunteer group that advocates for parks and park employees and that has sometimes sued the federal government.
Senators glossed over the major missions of the Interior Department, including supervising oil drilling on public lands and waters, protecting endangered species, managing public lands, coping with climate change and coordinating federal relations with hundreds of American Indian tribes.
Before taking office, she spent scores of hours with senior political and career employees in a small conference room at the department headquarters in Foggy Bottom, learning the physics of oil-spill-containment gear, the habitat of the Gunnison sage-grouse and the politics of an obscure road-building project through the Izembek Wilderness of Alaska. She likened the experience to drinking from a fire hose.
She professed not to be overawed by taking charge of an agency with an $11 billion budget, 70,000 employees and stewardship of 20 percent of the territory of the United States.
“Well, I’m not scared of it,” she said at the peak of the 3,291-foot Old Rag, one of the most popular hiking sites near D.C., after she scampered up a trail that rose 2,500 feet over about three miles. Jewell was slowed only by a party that included two park officers, a press aide, a bodyguard, a reporter and a photographer, none as fit and agile as she.
“You can’t possibly come into a job like this and expect to know what you’re doing right out of the gate,” she said. “You have to listen to very, very smart people who know what they’re doing and who can help you prioritize.”
Jewell was born in England and came to the U.S. at the age of 3. She said her father, Peter Roffey, an anesthesiologist, had moved the family because he was uncomfortable with England’s ossified class system. He died in 2003. Her mother, Anne, who died in 2011, was a nurse practitioner who specialized in women’s health.
Jewell met her future husband, Warren, a computer consultant, at the UW, where both were studying engineering. They have two children, Peter, 29, a pediatric intensive-care nurse, and Anne, 27, a revenue agent with the federal government. Both live in Seattle.
Jewell is an accomplished mountaineer, which made her a natural for the top job at REI. She first attempted Mount Rainier at age 15, was turned back by snow, but summited the following year. She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with Peter for his 16th birthday.
She took Anne to Switzerland on her 16th birthday to climb Mont Blanc, but her daughter demurred. Jewell hired a guide and climbed the mountain, the highest point in Western Europe, on her own.
In 2011, she joined an expedition to Antarctica to climb Mount Vinson, at 16,050 feet the highest point on that continent. Stranded there for 11 days by an airline strike in Chile, she killed time by climbing the remaining peaks of the glacial Vinson Massif.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has known and hiked with Jewell for more than 20 years. She said the capital is very different from the outdoor and corporate worlds Jewell has conquered, one where humility, even if feigned, is an essential tool.
“She has seen success in several industries — oil and gas, banking and then shifted to REI and made it all the way up the food chain there,” Cantwell said. “But this is a different animal. My advice was, ‘If a member calls you, call back the same day.’ The way it works here, if you show respect, you’ll get respect back.”
Jewell has already had a taste of how humbling Washington can be to newcomers.
When she opened an account at a bank branch near her new home in D.C., the clerk asked where she was employed.
“The Interior Department,” Jewell replied.
“What’s your position there?” the clerk asked.
“Secretary,” Jewell answered. The clerk just nodded.