The national press is infatuated with Sally Jewell as the outdoorsy new secretary of the Interior. In the Seattle area, it’s nearly impossible to find people who don’t have good things to say about the former chief executive of REI.
She will need all this goodwill and more, because the Interior Department can be a school for scandal.
Most recently, in 2008, the wing of the department that collects oil and gas royalties was caught up in allegations of financial improprieties, cocaine use, sexual misconduct and taking gifts from energy companies.
Back in the 1920s, the department was the epicenter of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal that defined the Harding administration, where oil companies bribed Interior Secretary Albert Fall to lease naval petroleum reserves. Fall became the first former Cabinet member to serve prison time.
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Before Jewell, the last Washington resident to become Interior Secretary was Richard Achilles Ballinger, appointed by President Taft in 1909. The former Seattle mayor gave his name to what was popularly known at the time as the Ballinger Affair. Although improprieties were alleged, Ballinger was cleared.
But the controversy was part of a split between Ballinger and Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt’s beloved Forest Service chief. Pinchot and his allies claimed Ballinger favored private exploitation over conservation. When Taft fired Pinchot, it began a conflict in the Republican Party that cost it the next presidential election.
This is not a dull, political patronage job.
The Interior Department sits at a unique juncture of the economy.
A department report stated that in 2011 it was responsible for $385 billion in economic activity and supporting more than 2 million jobs. These ranged from tourism, to National Parks and other Interior-managed lands, to extraction of oil, gas and coal as well as hydropower.
And this is on top of the department’s 70,000 employees and $11 billion budget. Unlike the Defense Department, Interior isn’t a major customer of the private sector. Unlike Treasury, it is not primarily a regulator. Instead, it faces a difficult task of being steward of the public’s lands but also overseeing and even encouraging the private exploitation of many of them.
Most of the 20 percent of the nation’s land managed by the department is in the West. Hence, in the modern era, Interior secretaries usually have been Westerners. Interior also oversees 35,000 miles of coastline and 1.76 billion acres of outer continental shelf.
It is the largest manager and supplier of water in the Western states, too, making its Bureau of Reclamation one of the most significant forces behind the urbanization of the Southwest.
Interior secretaries can’t go much further than the presidents under which they serve. Still, some have been distinguished, while a handful of others were mountebanks or placeholders.
Harold Ickes was secretary from 1933 to 1946 and was one of the major players in the New Deal, when he oversaw massive infrastructure investments. His name appears on the plaque of Grand Coulee Dam among many other projects still used today. Arizona’s Stewart Udall was a standout in the Kennedy administration when conservation was emphasized.
Jewell comes to the department at a different time.
Local politicians and public-land users are as restive about the large segments controlled by the federal government as when the sentiment ignited the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s. But the West is much more populous. The tension between stewardship and economic use, protection and recreation is fierce.
But the big pressure is coming from oil companies and Congress to open more public lands and the continental shelf to exploration and production. Jewell’s training as a petroleum engineer will come in handy.
The Obama administration has opened millions of acres for oil and gas leases. Critics say this still isn’t enough. On the other hand, 70 percent of offshore leases and 56 percent of the acres leased in the Lower 48 states are idle. Ensuring that companies pay their royalties is a long-standing challenge. And spills and other environmental contamination are constant dangers.
Conservationists are alarmed at the fossil-fuel push, but they don’t have the money to influence Congress or the administration much. Meanwhile, the drive to make the United States “the next Saudi Arabia” is leaving out the economic costs of adding to climate change.
Interior’s Bureau of Land Management also operates programs for leasing public lands for wind, solar and other renewable energy. But without a carbon tax, the private sector won’t invest much there. And this native Westerner’s heart breaks to think of pristine desert profaned with huge solar arrays.
No matter. We are in a cycle where exploitation has the juice. Conservation and stewardship will be pressed to hold their own, particularly faced with government austerity.
Amid all these battles — to update a metaphor coined by Theodore Roosevelt, who deeply cared about this department — Sally Jewell will be the woman in the arena.
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com