Interior nominee Sally Jewell: Public lands 'balance' is key
Washington • Utah's Sen. Mike Lee asked about the Gunnison sage grouse. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was concerned about a rural road problem in her state of Alaska. Tennessee's Sen. Lamar Alexander noted that Great Smoky Mountains National Park should get more funding.
When it comes to a confirmation hearing for a presidential nominee, all politics is local.
Interior Department nominee Sally Jewell appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday to answer questions about herself and how she would lead the land-management arm of the government.
And, of course, there were the important questions.
"I would like your definition of a stream," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., obviously angling for a response that could help a local issue in his rural state. "Just your definition of what you consider a stream."
Jewell's hearing was perfunctory she doesn't face big opposition so far but it did offer senators a chance to quiz the nominee on how she'll handle issues that would come before her as head of the mammoth Interior Department.
Alexander, a Republican, noted that Jewell had worked on an Alaska pipeline, was an oil and gas engineer, a banker for 19 years and headed a company with revenues in the billions.
"How'd you get appointed by this administration?" Alexander asked. "Sounds like someone a Republican president would appoint."
Some conservatives, however, are concerned about Jewell's work with environmental groups, specifically that she sits on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Jewell, the former head of Recreational Equipment Inc., pitched herself as someone who understands all sides of the public-lands debate because she's a former oil-industry executive, serves on a conservation group's board and runs an outdoor-equipment company.
"Balance is absolutely critical," Jewell said. "If confirmed for this position, I will use the best science available to harness our economic potential, preserving their multiple uses for current generations and future generations."
Under questioning, Jewell acknowledged that the use of the Antiquities Act which allows the president to unilaterally set aside land as a national monument is an "important avenue" to preserve pristine areas, but added that she's sensitive to how communities are affected and wants to work with local officials on wilderness designations.
Jewell said she wants to connect "with those communities in an appropriate way, so that it's not a surprise."
Hers nomination has been endorsed by the Outdoor Industry Association, the retailers group that brings to Utah its annual summer and winter markets, the state's largest conventions, which draw more than 46,000 visitors and $42.5 million annually to the local economy.
"Sally Jewell is the right person for this job," OIA President and CEO Frank Hugelmeyer said in a news release. "It is critical that the needs of our nation's public lands and waters are managed in a balanced and holistic manner to support the economy and create jobs. Ms. Jewell recognizes that this is not an 'either-or' choice."
Most of the senators on the panel who will vote later on her nomination hail from states with large swaths of public lands, and wanted Jewell's agreement that she would listen to their concerns once in office.
"When interior sneezes, we feel an earthquake in Nevada," joked Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., adding that 87 percent of his state is federal land.
Jewell made the rounds to speak privately with each senator on the committee last week, though several wanted to press her on their state-specific issues.
In addition to questions about the sage grouse, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who sits on the committee, asked Jewell about grazing rights, her thoughts on multiple uses and about government payments to rural counties with large public-land areas.
After the hearing, Lee said he wasn't sure how he would vote on Jewell's nomination; Sen. Orrin Hatch, too, is undecided.
But Lee noted that when it comes to the Interior Department, it's important to drill into the details on how the secretary will deal with Utah issues.
"The fact that it becomes parochial quickly is because they own so much of the land," Lee said.
On that note, Jewell made sure to mention that she believes in a balanced approach to managing public lands and supports a multiple-use agenda that includes preserving the "crown jewels" of America while also tapping oil and gas resources.
"Public lands are also huge economic engines," she told the committee. "Through energy development, through grazing, logging, tourism and outdoor recreation, our lands and waters power our economy and create jobs."