The outgoing Obama cabinet member looks back on her tenure running the agency that oversees nearly 20 percent of the nation’s land, including national parks, and relationships with Indian tribes. Sally Jewell's next step: a long road trip before coming home to Seattle.
As she packs up in preparation for leaving office Friday as the nation’s 51st secretary of the Interior, Seattleite Sally Jewell took a moment for a conversation with The Seattle Times about her accomplishments, hopes and plans for the future.
Her exit memo to President Obama touches on many of these points, and more, in her work leading the Department of Interior.
The department has a vast portfolio that includes oversight of about 20 percent of the nation’s land, including national parks and wildlife refuges. It oversees energy development on public land or waters, is the largest supplier of water in the western states and is charged with upholding treaties with American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.
Before serving as Interior secretary, Jewell was President and chief executive of REI.
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Q: What were your proudest accomplishments as secretary?
A: Jewell listed three: improving federal-tribal relations; getting more kids outdoors, and landscape conservation.
“What I am most proud of and feel I really moved the meter on is resetting the federal government relationship with indigenous people of this country,” Jewell said.
She noted key accomplishments with federal and tribal partners while she was secretary: settling more than 100 lawsuits with tribal nations; serving as the first chair of the newly created White House Council on Native Affairs, and beginning listening sessions with tribal nations to improve consultation with federal agencies engaged in the review of infrastructure projects.
On youth issues, Jewell worked to get digitally obsessed kids comfortable just playing in the outdoors; learning from “ … the best teacher of all, Mother Nature, in the best classroom, the outdoors.” She encouraged kids to give back through volunteer service on public lands, and urged them to start thinking of the outdoors in their career plans.
In particular, Jewell says she is proud of the Every Kid in a Park initiative, which provides a free pass to national parks and historic sites for every fourth-grader and their family. More than 2 million passes have been downloaded so far.
Jewell said she was also proud of her work on landscape conservation. On her watch, the Obama administration withdrew 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon from mineral development; placed Alaska’s Bristol Bay and its fisheries off-limits to oil and gas development; and recommended permanent wilderness protection or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
She supported the Obama administration’s drive to protect more acres of public land and waters than any administration in history, including 25 new national monuments, from light houses in the San Juan Islands to the Bears Ears monument protecting 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah.
Jewell’s department also placed a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands while her department undertook the first modernization of lease rates in 30 years and a comprehensive review of a federal coal-leasing program on public lands.
Jewell said work ahead for the next administration includes program reforms to earn more money for the public on competitive bids, and holding mining companies accountable for environmental clean up.
Jewell also has called for energy development on some public lands, and while in office aggressively pursued renewable-energy projects, including the country’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island.
Conservation of landscapes is one way to prepare for climate change already under way, Jewell said. “Conservation of our natural areas is necessary to the health of species and people,” Jewell said.
She also urged a deeper understanding of landscapes and how they function, including more attention paid to the knowledge already acquired by native peoples from the lands they have intimately known.
From natives in Alaska aware of berrying grounds already sunken and lost in sinkholes in the permafrost, to hunters who during a lifetime of tracking have seen the migratory pathways of caribou shift, indigenous knowledge can enhance conventional scientific data and understanding of ecological change under way, Jewell noted.
Q. What was the biggest thing you learned as secretary?
A. “The importance of listening. To listen to all points of view … so you are not making decisions based on information from people closest to you,” Jewell said.
“I’m a trust-but-verify person; I ask lots of questions. You have to do that. If you don’t, you are likely to get bitten by something you wish you had heard.”
As secretary, some of her most important insights “were learned from people who either in the org chart, or physical distance, were a long way away,” Jewell said. That includes a career staffer cleaning a rest room at a national park, a tribal leader in a dining hall, or a rancher who talks about his or her connection to public lands.
Her advice to anyone leading anything: “Push the team around you to allow the time in your schedule to get out and have authentic conversations with people at every level.”
Q: What now?
A. “I need a break,” said Jewell, 60. Her first task after packing up and turning in her Interior ID is loading up her car for a long road trip. She wants time to think about what’s next, and to “reintroduce myself to my husband.”
Her career thoughts have not gotten much further than “I am definitely not retiring,” Jewell said. Conversations are under way with the University of Washington, where Jewell earned her B.A. in mechanical engineering. She foresees “some sort of relationship” with the UW’s College of the Environment. “That is an area I am very invested in, and an institution I love dearly,” Jewell said.
With a home and family awaiting in Seattle, she’ll be back to stay by spring to re-encounter a boat “collecting green slime” at the Elliott Bay Marina, and the joys of the mountains she so missed in the other Washington, Jewell said.
On Friday, she’ll help see off President Obama as he flies away from Washington. On Saturday, she plans to take part in the Women’s March on Washington and to host other marchers at her home.
Then? It will be time to hit the road.