Utahns eye Jewell's blended background with caution

Confirmation hearing this week for new Interior secretary

Published: Monday, March 4 2013 7:05 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama walks with his Interior Secretary nominee, REI Chief Executive Officer Sally Jewell, following the announcement in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

<p>SALT LAKE CITY — Sally Jewell, President Barack Obama's pick to replace outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, is slated to take over the agencies that manage the nation's public lands at a time critically important to Utah.

If she emerges from the confirmation hearing in Washington Thursday with a favorable nod and receives the approval of the Senate, the British-born mountain climber, wife and mother of two will be thrown into a tempest of broiling public lands issues in the West, and in few places is the heat more intense than in the Beehive State.

Jewell will have to be both a pragmatic arbitrator and diplomat cloaked in body armor to weather Utah's list of complaints against the U.S. Department of Interior, from its perceived intractable lethargy over granting rights-of-way on disputed roads, to a public lands management philosophy Utah conservatives say favors wilderness.

The Washington resident may be a political newcomer — she's never held elected office — but she's no stranger to the pressures of the boardroom or the practical challenges of being out in the oil fields, where she worked as a petroleum engineer for Mobil Oil.

Most recently, she rose through the leadership ranks of the profitable and successful Washington-based REI, Recreation Equipment Inc., a co-op established in the 1930s that has grown to more than 100 stores and 3.1 million members.

That gives her background in both energy and the environment.

Who is Sally Jewell?

Jewell, who grew up in a camping and sailing family, took expertise forged in the banking industry to secure her position with REI as chief operating officer in 2000 and five years later to lead the company as its president and CEO.

In a presentation detailing an REI executive interview of Jewell, the company noted that her leadership style is decisive and she solves disputes when they arise instead of leaving them to fester.

It noted, too, that she has a no-nonsense business acumen in which people know where she stands on issues, even as a large "no whining" button is prominently displayed on her desk.

Far right critics of Obama's choice, however, accuse Jewell of using investor dollars to "wage green activism."

REI touts its corporate eco-friendly sustainability initiatives and has a goal to be "climate neutral" by 2020.

In addition, its foundation funnels money to numerous conservation efforts to connect kids with nature.

Jewell has been involved in the Mountain-To-Sounds Greenway Trust, which orchestrated a successful effort to keep the I-90 corridor through Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state from falling victim to urban sprawl and she has been active in leadership of the National Parks Conservation Association.

So while Jewell has a business-savvy background and field experience in the oil industry as an engineer, she will also bring a tradition of conservation activism to the office of Interior secretary.

The Conservation Alliance

In 1989, some six years before she joined REI's board of directors, the co-op partnered with other outdoor retail corporations to establish The Conservation Alliance, which has since handed out more than $11 million to groups that include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance — one of Utah's most active litigators on environmental issues — as well as Grand Canyon Trust and Earthjustice.

The Conservation Alliance, on its website, touts success stories that include backing Earthjustice in its legal efforts to thwart the issuance of 77 oil and gas leases offered at a 2008 Salt Lake City BLM auction. 

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