SALT LAKE CITY — Interior secretary nominee Sally Jewell may have cleared the first hurdle to lead the federal agency with Thursday's approval from a Senate panel, but some Western states' senators warned that issues such as sage grouse management may derail their support of her.
Jewell will move onto full Senate consideration of her nomination to lead the U.S. Department of Interior after the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted 19-3 to approve her.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was among the three Senate members to vote no.
While Lee praised Jewell for her corporate expertise and impressive qualities, he said there were other aspects of her background that didn't persuade him to endorse her.
"Her experience in public land policy involves active participation in organizations that continually sue to restrict access to public land and prevent development of natural resources in Utah and across the West," Lee said in a prepared statement. "Her public land policy experience raised serious questions that were not adequately addressed before (Thursday's) business meeting."
Lee was referencing Jewell's membership on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, an involvement blasted at the March 7 hearing by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who said it is an active litigator against the agency Jewell proposes to lead.
Hammered over the potential conflict that would surface in settlements involving the Interior and NPCA, Jewell declined to say if she would recuse herself in those instances. Instead, she offered that she would consult with "ethics professionals" in her office when it came to making any decisions prompted by NPCA lawsuits brought against the agency.
Because of that entanglement, Barrasso said he was voting no. Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, also voted no.
Another committee member, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, voted to approve Jewell but warned he was reserving the right to vote no during her full hearing before the Senate. Risch also threatened to place a hold on her nomination if the Interior Department doesn't play more cooperatively with Western states over their management plans of the greater sage grouse.
"Our issue de jure is the sage grouse," he said. "We have a substantial population in the states of Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Nevada."
Risch complained that the states were directed to come up with their own management plans in an attempt to keep the imperiled chicken-like bird off the Endangered Species list, only to have the agency backtrack on accepting those management strategies as valid plans.
The shift, he added, came in contradiction to the federal agency's own commitment to adhere to science, rather than to bow to threats.
"Instead of following science, they are concerned about litigation," Risch said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2010 that the bird merited listing under the Endangered Species Act, but would make its final decision by 2015.
The nomination of Jewell, the president and chief executive officer of the colossal REI outdoor equipment retailer, will not likely go before the full Senate until after the Easter break.