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Sally Jewell would rather scale the Washington Monument than sit in one more meeting about cutting her budget. This is not hyperbole. The secretary of the Interior has done both and clearly prefers the former.

Jewell clipped into a safety harness in June and ascended what she calls the monument’s “exoskeleton,” an elaborate, 55-story structure erected for its repair that most people would call “scaffolding.” With philanthropist David Rubenstein, who is paying for half the work on the monument, and several others, Jewell easily climbed the scaffold’s stairs and a ladder to the top, where she reached the monument’s aluminum cap and took in a magnificent view of a place she barely knew.

In a city where “climber” normally has less-than-positive connotations, Jewell, 57, is an accomplished and remarkably fit mountaineer who has scaled Mount Rainier seven times and Antarctica’s tallest peak, Mount Vinson, and Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe.

That is just the beginning of what makes the 51st secretary of the Interior one of the more unlikely government officials in town. She is only the second woman to hold the post (which she assumed in April), and, unlike Ken Salazar, Dirk Kempthorne, Gale Norton, Bruce Babbitt and most others in the decades before her, she is not a Western politician. She has never held elective office and says she is not interested in running for one. She is an engineer-turned-banker-turned-chief executive officer of Recreational Equipment (REI), the outdoor-gear cooperative, based in Kent, that had nearly $2 billion in sales last year.

She is a pragmatist learning to manage a raft of issues. To Washington, D.C., insiders with hard-line opinions on hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, Jewell can say — and does — that she has fracked wells herself.

But until recently, she had never taken on a petulant senator, shut down a $12 billion organization with more than 70,000 employees for 16 days, negotiated the emergency reopening of several national parks, lopped millions of dollars from her budget to comply with sequestration, worked with Indian tribes or confronted restive environmental groups, to name just a few of her new duties.

“It can be a breath of fresh air to not be stuck in the Washington ways,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters and a veteran of endless battles over environmental protection. “That is not a negative in any way. The key is understanding the tools you have at your disposal to make progress.”

“Tough job”

Jewell gave up a salary of $1.98 million (she is anticipating, however, an REI bonus of $1 million to $1.2 million) to come to D.C., according to her financial-disclosure form. “I have always had an interest in making a difference, having an impact in a positive way,” she said in an interview.

So instead of handing out dividends to REI members, she has taken command of an agency where the only guarantee is that every decision will irritate, if not infuriate, some powerful constituency, from green groups to coal miners. Take the gray wolf off the endangered-species list? Some conservationists are appalled. Put the sage-grouse on? Not if ranchers have their way. Open more federal land to fracking? Over the dead bodies of many environmental groups.

“It’s a tough job and I don’t care who you put in there,” said Cecil Andrus, who held the post during the Carter administration.

“It’s a tough time to be in Washington, a tough time to be in the Cabinet,” said Salazar, Jewell’s predecessor. “It’s just tough to be a manager in Washington, and that’s what a Cabinet officer is.”

Even some of Jewell’s antagonists call her outsider perspective refreshing. In May, at a closed meeting with conservation groups, she got into an argument over fracking with Michael Brune, the outspoken executive director of the Sierra Club, according to several people with knowledge of the incident.

A more seasoned D.C. hand might have responded to Brune’s criticism with something vaguely conciliatory. But the chief executive of a major company usually doesn’t put up with such lip. Whatever combination of those personas Jewell is now, she has never been known to mince words.

Some people appreciate that. Among them is Brune.

“I like her a lot,” Brune said. “She’s energetic, she’s direct, very candid, honest. She is different from most people in the administration or up on (Capitol) Hill just for those qualities. She’s there to get a job done. She’s not there to build a career, necessarily.”

In a conference room in Awendaw, S.C., last month, Jewell addressed an overflow crowd of local officials, government parks employees, environmentalists and others concerned about the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Dressed in her usual outfit of high-end outdoor gear and walking shoes, water bottle always at hand, Jewell was self-deprecating, amusing and blunt as she spoke off-the-cuff and answered questions from her sympathetic audience.

Business background

At REI, Jewell is credited with restoring profitability after some questionable decisions before her tenure. Before that, she rose through the ranks at several banks, eventually overseeing Washington Mutual’s loan portfolio after initially being hired to provide advice on lending to the oil industry. In the first part of her career, she worked in the oil industry as an engineer.

She is married to Warren Jewell, an engineer whom she met while both attended the University of Washington. The couple have two grown children.

She was offered a spot as an assistant secretary at Interior early in Obama’s first term but turned it down, saying the time was not right for her to leave REI, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

Jewell’s environmental credentials, personal and professional, are widely acknowledged by the myriad groups that fight fiercely for government protection of open spaces and wildlife.

She moved to Washington state from Britain with her family at the age of 3 and has been camping, kayaking and climbing ever since. In an October speech in which she outlined her vision for the department, she promised that Obama would use the Antiquities Act to preserve more wilderness in the face of a Congress that, for the first time in half a century, has failed to set aside a single acre since 2010. In recent months, Interior oversaw the first two auctions of offshore wind farms, a process begun under Salazar.

Tom Kiernan, chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association who survived a potentially deadly ice fall while climbing Mount Rainier with Jewell, calls her “an outstanding leader for Interior and an outstanding outdoorswoman.”

But she can’t please everyone.

“I didn’t see leadership from Secretary Salazar on endangered species, and I’m hopeful I’ll see it from Sally Jewell. I haven’t seen it yet,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former Interior official.

Jewell made environmentalists happy this week when, like Salazar before her, she refused to allow construction of a one-lane gravel road through a portion of Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the tiny, remote town of King Cove, which has spent years seeking the road for medical-evacuation access to an all-weather airport. The town and the state of Alaska had proposed a land swap to get the road built. But Jewell said four years of analysis showed that the acreage that would have been added to the refuge would not compensate for the road’s impact.

During the October government shutdown, Jewell worked out an unusual agreement that allowed states to pay to reopen national parks such as Utah’s Bryce Canyon and New York’s Statue of Liberty, to keep revenue flowing and visitors happy. But the visual that captured more attention — and ultimately overshadowed the deal Jewell had worked out with the states — was a group of elderly Mississippi veterans, some in wheelchairs, storming the shuttered World War II monument when the Park Service refused to let them in.

The development of energy resources on public lands is even more treacherous terrain. Interior oversees 20 percent of the land in the U.S., some of which contains oil, gas and coal that energy companies and Indian tribes want to extract. Jewell has outlined a regional approach allowing the federal government to set aside some areas as too “special” for drilling or mining, while offering others for development.

She is not torn by the department’s dual missions of conservation and promotion of energy development. “I don’t feel like it’s in conflict,” she said. “Development is important for economic opportunity and health and well-being. But development should be balanced and recognized for its impact.”

Listening and learning

But revised fracking rules proposed in May on the use and disposal of fluids and chemicals to release trapped oil from rock made no one happy. “It was a bad rule initially and, from our point of view, it’s gotten worse,” said Sharon Buccino, director of the land and wildlife program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which wants a moratorium on new fracking. The oil industry wants regulations left in the hands of states. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management “has yet to answer the question why BLM is moving forward with these requirements in the first place,” said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute.

Babbitt, breaking the silence that past holders of the Interior post traditionally afford the current occupant, said in a National Press Club speech the day before Jewell was nominated that “Americans expect their public lands to supply more energy for today. But they also expect more parks, wilderness and open space for tomorrow. And that balance between development and land conservation is not being maintained.”

Then there are Indian tribes, which the administration is trying to strengthen. “I was elected to provide basic services and jobs to my citizens and I will steadfastly and responsibly pursue Crow coal development to achieve my vision for the Crow people,” Crow Nation Chairman Darrin Old Coyote testified to Congress.

Jewell said she is still listening and learning. She had traveled more than 65,000 miles as of Dec. 2, according to Interior figures, a total that has raised an eyebrow or two.

Andrus, the former Interior secretary under Carter, warned that one way the bureaucracy wears out a secretary is to keep that person on the road.

Jewell, who appears to be setting her own travel agenda, said there are secondary motives for her journeys: Employees are more likely to speak truth to power when they’re out with her instead of sitting in her office. She followed the same practice at REI.

“One of the hardest things to do,” she told the group in South Carolina, “is to get people to tell you what’s on their minds … I try to get out on the land, try to spend time with the people who are doing the work.”

Wherever possible, Jewell also tries to spend time with children. In a visitor’s center in Awendaw, she poked through oyster shells and other muck with a classroom full of children who had returned from a dig. She asked questions and pointed out interesting finds. She became a soft-spoken biology teacher for a few minutes, the kind of person who thinks of scaffolding as an exoskeleton.

She served on trail crews when she was younger; now one of her top goals is to create a million-member conservation corps that would get younger people back into the nation’s parks.

White middle-aged people and their elders are overrepresented among parkgoers, as succeeding generations have taken up positions in front of computer and video-game screens.

“We are in the forever business,” she said later. “We are in the business of protecting these resources forever.”

Alice Crites contributed

to this report.