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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) 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)

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.

President Barack Obama and his Interior Secretary nominee REI CEO Sally Jewell, center, applaud outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (Susan Walsh, Associated Press) President Barack Obama and his Interior Secretary nominee REI CEO Sally Jewell, center, applaud outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (Susan Walsh, Associated Press)

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.

Gov. Chris Gregoire appears at a news conference Feb. 9, 2006, in Seattle. Joining Gregoire are, from left, John Boonstra, of the Washington Association of Churches, Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Sally Jewell, REI president and CEO, and Mark Heckert, of the National Wildlife Federation. Jewell has been nominated to be the new secretary of the Interior. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press) Gov. Chris Gregoire appears at a news conference Feb. 9, 2006, in Seattle. Joining Gregoire are, from left, John Boonstra, of the Washington Association of Churches, Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Sally Jewell, REI president and CEO, and Mark Heckert, of the National Wildlife Federation. Jewell has been nominated to be the new secretary of the Interior. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)

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. 

After a federal judge put a hold on the leases as a result of the lawsuit, Salazar rescinded them, much to the howls of the Utah Legislature and then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who hand-delivered a resolution to Washington urging the leases' reinstatement.

Jewell, too, stood in support of a lawsuit announced at a Washington state press conference in 2006 at REI in which multiple states were challenging the erosion of Clinton-era protections on wilderness.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, doesn't like that aspect of Jewell's background, but he admits he understands it.

"All these elements that are there, that is part of the business she has promoted," he said. "I can understand her being involved in that, but I don't necessarily approve of it."

Bishop said that the test of Jewell's mettle will be if and when she takes the helm as Interior secretary.

"It will depend on how she responds once she has that broader mandate on her shoulders," he said.

"Once again, her job at REI was pushing her business, which is recreation and conservation, and she doesn't need to be fair and balanced. But when it comes to this position, she will have to be fair, and she will have to balanced and not try to pick winners and losers."

Confirmation hearing

Bishop said he is hopeful that questions asked during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's confirmation hearing will help define Jewell's position on managing lands for multiple uses.

Jewell's blended background — petroleum engineer-turned-outdoor-loving business executive — has silenced most of the criticism that could come from the predictable voices that weigh in on land management issues.

Richard Peterson-Cremer, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, called Jewell an "impressive" nominee who understands the many issues involved with public lands.

While fully aware of her conservation background, the Western Energy Alliance — a mountain states association representing oil and gas producers — said it is hopeful she will bring a "better" balance as Interior secretary.

"Her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio," said Tim Wigley, the alliance's president, adding that the group "welcomes" her nomination.

As the state continues to throw up challenges to the federal government on issues such as disputed roads and control of public lands, the ultimate goal is to get both sides at the negotiating table to hammer out a workable compromise, said Kathleen Clarke, director of Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.

"I truly believe that we have more in common than we have in conflict, but we need to talk through these issues that are very troublesome," she said.

Like Bishop, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he understands that Jewell has had to push a certain agenda because of her role as chief executive officer of REI. At the same time, he said he's optimistic that her business background could arm her with a sharp enough instrument that she cuts through the malaise of government bureaucracy.

"Business executives are used to getting things done," he said. "She will bring fresh eyes and fresh perspective and there is some energy that comes with the changing of the guard."

Even in the midst of lawsuits and threats against the federal government, Herbert said he's keenly aware of the need to keep negotiations open with the U.S. Department of Interior.

"She owns more land in Utah than I do as governor," Herbert said. "She is a big player in this state. It is important for us to have a good working relationship with the Department of Interior because they have such a large impact on our land mass in Utah."

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