The emperor of the American outdoors usually wears a cowboy hat, for the lashing dust and searing sun in the domain of the Interior Department, which is one-fifth of the United States. James Watt, the most small-minded head of that agency in modern times, wore one. So did Ken Salazar, the outgoing secretary.
Don’t expect to see Sally Jewell, who is President Barack Obama’s nominee for Interior secretary, in a showy Stetson. Running shoes, yes. Climbing helmet, of course. Cycling tights, no doubt. If confirmed, Jewell would be one of the few directors of that vast department to actually share the passions of the majority of people who use the 500 million acres of public land under Interior’s control.
It’s not just that Jewell has climbed Mount Rainier, kayaked innumerable frothy waterways, skied and snowboarded double-diamond runs. Nor that, as chief executive of the nation’s largest consumer cooperative – Recreational Equipment Inc., the retailer known as REI – she knows that Americans spend more money on outdoor equipment than they do on pharmaceuticals or gasoline.
But Jewell – a city-dweller, educated, articulate about the importance of nature in a modern life – is a prototypical citizen of the 21st-century American West, still the geography of hope, in Wallace Stegner’s timeless phrase.
“It feels so nice to get a little mud on your feet, a little mist in your face,” she said not long ago, after a winter hike near her home in Seattle.
For all the ranchers and wildcatters, the loggers and right-wing county commissioners who clamor for control of the nation’s public lands, the dominant user is an urbanite, who bikes, skis, rafts, climbs, hunts, fishes, watches birds, waits for sunsets with a camera or finds an antidote for “nature deficit disorder” in a weekend on a high plateau.
Yet this silent majority is taken for granted. Obama, following the ravaged path of George W. Bush, has made it easy for oil and gas drillers to industrialize huge swaths of land that are owned by every citizen. About 6 million acres have been leased to drillers in the last four years; a total of 44 million acres are under lease now.
Bush made oil and gas drilling his No. 1 priority for Interior’s lands. Obama has not significantly altered that course.
“We are drilling all over the place,” Obama said in defense of his policies during the presidential campaign. At the same time, less public land has been permanently protected under Obama than any of the prior four presidents.
Every time gas prices go up, some demagogue will say it’s because we aren’t sucking enough oil out of our shared setting, when in fact there is no connection between the global price of oil and annual output from government leases. But Obama has been afraid to rally the larger conservation and recreational-user coalition because he fears the wrath of the fossil-fuel crowd.
In part, this is because those who value the prairies, canyons, mountains and grasslands of Interior for something other than extraction have been largely missing from the debate. They let buffoonish politicians from rural Western areas drone on about the need to put even more public lands under control of the oil industry. They allow corporate interests who are more at home on a Saudi golf course than in a slick-rock canyon in southern Utah to speak for the West.
Just recently, that has started to change. The outdoor recreational industry directly supports three times more jobs than the oil and gas sector. People who play in the American outdoors spend $646 billion a year, responsible for 6.1 million jobs.
Bruce Babbitt, one of the best Interior secretaries of the last 50 years, understood this historic shift but was able to convince his boss, Bill Clinton, of the power of the constituency only in the last years of his presidency.
Jewell is a mechanical engineer by education and certainly knows her way around a drilling rig after a stint with Mobil Oil. She also spent 19 years in the banking industry. But her life was never strictly defined by her day job.
When her father, an anesthesiologist from England, moved to Seattle in the 1950s, he asked what people did with their spare time. Someone told him to join REI, which was founded in 1938 by two dozen or so mountain climbers looking for a way to buy an ice ax.
Today, REI is still a cooperative – socialist alert! – honoring its Scandinavian-American roots, albeit a profitable one that returns nearly $100 million to members every year. They have 127 stores in 31 states.
Jewell can be an exuberant evangelist on the subject of trying to get kids from the inner cities into the mountains. There is a profound disconnect, she often says, between modern life and the natural world. And those city dwellers without money are the ones missing out most.
Sally Jewell would be the first woman chosen to join Obama’s second-term cabinet, which is dominated by white men. But she also represents a different kind of diversity inside the Beltway: someone who can tell you which way the wind is blowing without having to fake it.Timothy Egan writes for The New York Times from a Western perspective.