Interior Secretary Sally Jewell hikes peak with Utah BLM staff
Lands • Sally Jewell listens to feedback to build “common understanding.”
Published: July 6, 2013 02:17PM
Updated: December 7, 2013 11:35PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell speaks to her hiking partners about her love for the outdoors and her respect for the work that they are doing, prior to leaving on the hike to Barney's Peak in the Oquirrhs with BLM employees, Saturday, June 29, 2013.

Barney’s Peak • Pass Canyon, rising from Tooele Valley agricultural land to the crest of the Oquirrh Mountains, is a hidden outdoor gem near Salt Lake City, and it belongs to you.

On a recent hike up this canyon to Barney’s Peak, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell paused to observe the changes in vegetation as her party ascended, noting where the oak and maple trees gave way to aspen and conifers, as well as the appearance of Indian paintbrush and other upper-elevation wildflowers.

Under a series of land exchanges in the late 1990s, the Bureau of Land Management acquired the Oquirrhs’ west slope and now manages the 16,000-acre tract as a conservation area for wildlife and nonmotorized recreation.

But such an exchange might be impossible today due to staffing cuts and burdensome regulations, said Mike Nelson, the BLM real estate specialist who engineered the transactions.

This was the kind of feedback the new Interior chief sought when she joined about 30 members of BLM’s Salt Lake field office and other Utah-based Interior employees last weekend to stroll up the 8,200-foot peak.

An avid hiker and lover of the outdoors, Jewell replaced Ken Salazar two months ago to become the nation’s 51st Interior secretary, overseeing a network of natural-resource agencies that employ 70,000 and manage more than a half billion acres, including most of Utah.

Jewell was in Utah to address the Western Governors’ Association conference in Park City, where she described how public lands are a crucial economic driver, but they must be managed in a way that balances conservation and resource development. She promised to listen to local concerns, which in Utah have long soured on federal oversight of the state’s natural resources.

“Part of our job in leadership is to make sure the ‘why’ behind decisions is translated down. It’s not necessarily that if you’re close to the resource, you’re right, and if you’re far away, you’re wrong,” she said Saturday while taking in the view from Barney’s Peak. “It’s that you need to build a common understanding of the rationale of the science behind why a decision is made so people aren’t left scratching their heads saying, ‘What are those idiots in D.C. doing?’ ”

Unfairly or not, many Utah lawmakers and county commissioners use much worse epithets to describe federal land managers, contending national policies are ruining Western land and communities. Such sentiments prompted the Utah Legislature to pass bills demanding the federal government hand over 30 million acres to state control.

Jewell said she hopes conflicts can be relieved through greater face-to-face engagement.

On Saturday, those getting face time with Jewell were BLM employees who had never seen an Interior secretary in the field before, asking them about their lives.

“I might have the biggest office in Washington, D.C., thanks to Harold Ickes [the Interior secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt], but I like yours much better,” said Jewell, who left her job as CEO of Seattle-based Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI, to take the helm at Interior.

Without showing much strain, Jewell made the 3,000-foot ascent chatting with BLM staffers like Nelson, fire investigator Teresa Rigby, fuels specialist Brad Washa, recreation planner Roxanne Tea and firefighter Ethan Hill.

The Bonneville Hotshots staffed water stations along the trail, and Jewell stopped at each to get photographed with the elite wildland firefighters, not knowing that the next day 19 Arizona-based Hotshots would lose their lives. She asked each their names, what they do in the off-season, what they study in college, and what they have seen change on the ground in the past several years.

“I’ve heard rumors you’re a snowboarder,” one told Jewell.

“Not a very good one,” demurred the secretary, known for tackling mountains much higher than Barney’s.

Although it’s unlikely she’ll have time to improve her snowboarding during the next four years, she hopes Interior under her watch improves its stewardship of public lands and meets its obligations to Indian tribes.

“Is the resource being managed in a way that supports not just now but our children and our grandchildren, and also our economy? If I can help make that happen because of the people on the ground here and let them get the recognition,” Jewell said, “I would be delighted.”

bmaffly@sltrib.com