Washington • Just off the traffic-snarled George Washington Parkway, over a small footbridge and across from the Lincoln Memorial, lies a natural island unscathed by the development of the nation’s capital.
American Indians fished here. Slaves worked a plantation here. Union troops camped here.
And this is where Sally Jewell wants to chat.
The Interior Department secretary has one of the most spacious government offices in Washington, a 1,120-square-foot suite with a wraparound balcony and killer views. But Jewell, essentially America’s largest landlord, is the walk-and-talk kind. On this day she wants to take a hike on Roosevelt Island, fittingly since the national park is dedicated to President Teddy Roosevelt, who pioneered the effort to preserve America’s treasured lands.
After one year as secretary, the businesswoman-turned-government-leader has shaken up top staff at the department, launched a youth initiative, pushed renewable energy and focused on climate-change solutions. She’s not the Georgetown cocktail-party type, nor the stuffy pantsuit-wearing, PowerPoint-flashing, Blackberry-clinging power broker.
Her official Cabinet secretary photo doesn’t depict her in front of the standard U.S. flag backdrop but rather donning a fleece vest at Great Falls National Park in Virginia. Her conversations with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough often come not in his office, but in a walk through the Rose Garden and the South Lawn.
“For a lot of reasons, when we’re out in nature, it just creates a different kind of relationship; it creates a deeper more authentic conversation,” Jewell says, rounding the south point of Roosevelt Island, covered in plants and trees trying to recover from a harsh winter. “There’s the actual walking side by side with someone versus staring at them face to face; it changes the dynamic of the conversation in a way that I think is less intimidating.”
Washington is intimidating but Jewell is a novelty in this town, an outsider who is used to a workforce she hired and not responding to the 535-member board otherwise known as Congress. She is the first interior secretary in a generation who didn’t hold elective office before taking the job.
To some critics, though, Jewell is another tree-hugger who cares more about protecting some species of flora or fauna than creating jobs, a secretary that does the bidding of the White House without regard to impacts on ranchers or farmers or businesses. Her supporters say she’s been a willing listener, a pragmatist not a politician, and that she’s pushed forward important projects started by her predecessor, Ken Salazar.
She’s also been willing to buck the traditional malaise that sets in with Washington decisions.
During the government shutdown last October, White House press secretary Jay Carney was lambasting Republican attempts to reopen certain popular programs, calling the piecemeal approach a “gimmick,” just as news broke that Jewell had negotiated with several states to throw open the gates at national parks.
During the 16-day standoff, the shuttered national parks were the most visible reminder of the historic shutdown, and she worked to end it.
It’s been an interesting 12 months for the Washington newbie.
Welcome to Washington • That stint has been hampered by the inability to get her handpicked aides in place. She took office April 12, 2013, but it took nine months to get her chosen deputy, Mike Connor, through the Senate, even though he was approved 97-0.
Six nominees — not counting Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze who was confirmed last week — are still awaiting votes, including top officials for Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey and Land and Mineral Management.
“That’s been really frustrating and not like anything you see in the private sector, where you can put your team together,” says Jewell, who left as head of outdoor retailer REI Inc. to move to Washington.
Some of those appointments are bogged down in the slow Senate process while others are being held up for political reasons. Jewell has been called up to Capitol Hill frequently to answer questions about parochial issues members of Congress have for their areas. It’s something Salazar got used to when he had the gig.
“Interior is one of the most difficult jobs in the Cabinet, and that’s because it is a place where very difficult issues land and decisions have to be made and there are powerful interests that will line up on either side of the equation, and that includes the members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate,” says Salazar, who now works for an international law firm.
Salazar notes that Jewell has brought a perspective he didn’t have.
“We all bring our life experiences to the job,” he says, “in her case having been the head of REI but also having been associated with the national parks for a long time, she’s bringing that world of experience, which is not a world of experience that I brought to interior.”
David Hayes, who was Salazar’s top deputy and continued in the job until Connor took over in late February, says Jewell and Salazar are “very different people,” each effective in his and her own way. Salazar, a former U.S. senator and Colorado attorney general, knew the process well; Jewell, who worked for an oil company and as a bank executive before joining REI, had never served in government.
“Sally doesn’t have the benefit or the burden of having been in government and knowing Washington,” says Hayes. “In some respects, that can be a benefit. I know she’s asking first-principle questions that don’t often get asked and it’s also showing some of her CEO sort of smarts in terms of looking at the long view on things.”
With new leadership comes new focus, he adds, but interior is “a big ship that keeps on sailing.”
Sailing, though, sometimes involves rough seas.
King Cove • Alaska announced last week that it would sue the Interior Department over Jewell’s decision against allowing a road through a national wildlife refuge for the small village of King Cove to have access to an all-weather airport in emergencies. Jewell rejected the gravel road, saying it would cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem, a move that fired up Alaska residents and officials.
“I have been, I think, disappointed that she has not demonstrated the independent leadership that I thought she would bring to the position,” says Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who had voted for Jewell’s confirmation.
“One of the things that she pointed out to me as an attribute was that she was a convener and I am waiting to see that attribute demonstrated,” Murkowski says. “She strikes me as a nice person — we’ve got a lot in common; we both enjoy the outdoors. When we went to Alaska, we were able to share stories as two women on a great, interesting trip would — but I haven’t seen the type of leadership in her capacity as secretary as I had hoped.”
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, says Jewell has a “spotty record,” a mix between pushing oil and gas drilling forward but blocking the King Cove road.
Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, says he doesn’t believe Jewell has been as forthcoming as she should be to congressional overseers and that the secretary seems to be taking orders straight from the White House.
“They’ve made every attempt to be open and honest with us, and I do appreciate that, but I have an overall concern with this administration that they’re not giving us information on issues that we have oversight of,” Hastings says. “I’m not sure she has the autonomy that she needs or any Cabinet secretary has to be honest with you.”
Jewell scoffs at that suggestion.
“These are complicated agencies to run, and for anyone to imagine that a small group of people in the White House were playing a significant role with any of the Cabinet secretaries in running their agencies is just not practical,” Jewell says. “They’ve hired us to do a job, they trust us to do a job and they’re pretty hands off.”
In fact, Jewell says, the best way to govern is to sit down with local communities and work to find solutions. She visited King Cove, for example, to hear from residents, though ultimately sided another way.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who heads a subcommittee over public lands, says Jewell’s first year has been a mixed bag: She’s not been helpful to Western states, he says, but she’s been supportive of his effort to bring warring parties together to solve regional issues in Utah.
“She’s not quite as political as some have been in the past,” Bishop says. “I find that pleasantly surprising.”
Jewell objected to legislation by Bishop that would change how a president can use the 1906 Antiquities Act, forcing a monument designation through an environmental review process, and she says the abuse Republicans worry about just hasn’t happened.
“It has been used sparingly and effectively over the time since it was enacted in 1906,” Jewell says, “and it’s certainly not something that you can say this president has used in an inappropriate way at all.”
She supports protections that are backed by communities impacted by monument designations but says that if Congress is unwilling to take steps to set aside areas, the president — as he vowed in his State of the Union address — is willing to take action.
Hard job • Jewell has learned to navigate the minefields . During a recent budget hearing in the House, she was asked if there was a litmus test for Interior Department employees to believe in climate change (Jewell said no) and why the government is spending money buying more land when its current maintenance backlog is so long (short answer, she says, some areas need to be protected).
“Talking to my predecessors, both Republican and Democrat, this is a hard job and there’re almost no decisions to make that won’t make someone mad,” Jewell says. “And their advice, and again it comes from both sides of the political aisle, is get all the facts that you can and make the best decision you know how supported by the facts. And then you’ll be able to sleep at night.”
She has a fan in Sen. Orrin Hatch, who took a stroll with Jewell near the Utah Capitol last year. While the Utah Republican says the two will never see eye to eye on all issues, he has a high regard for her effort to reach out and be responsive.
“Naturally, she’s very environmentally oriented, which is par for the course in that particular position,” Hatch says. “She’s very intelligent and she makes every effort to resolve matters rather than just be political.”
Jewell touts Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy, pushing fossil fuels as well as wind, solar and geothermal. She oversaw the department’s first offshore wind lease sale that could eventually power some 2 million homes.
As usual, though, oil and gas companies fear the department is holding them back. The Republican minority of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week pointed out that BLM stats show oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands has hit its lowest point in more than a decade.
Jewell counters that oil production on federal lands is up “demonstrably” in the Obama administration versus that of President George W. Bush, and that interior isn’t backing away from extraction industries.
Lessons learned • Jewell takes a pause in her hike at a memorial for Roosevelt that includes a 17-foot statue of the 26th president raising his right hand to the sky. It’s empty and quiet, except for the jets flying into nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport.
“There isn’t a place I don’t go on public lands that I feel my colleagues don’t have a nicer office than I do,” Jewell says. “Their office is the great outdoors.”
She bought a house in Washington and has already visited several of the area parks. She’s hit Antietam National Battlefield twice in Maryland, but she won’t say which national park is her favorite.
“I love all my children,” she jokes, “all 401 of them.”
Jewell also demurs when asked what she wants to be remembered for.
“I can do something about climate change. I can’t fix it, but I can help raise awareness.”
She previously has called climate change the “defining challenge of our time.”
The interior secretary says her job is much bigger than it appears, and she’s worked to get up to speed quickly on the issues while also making sure to keep a good outreach to the department’s 72,000 employees, career folks who she says need to buy into why decisions are made and not just be told what to do. She’s also learned a critical lesson about the federal government.
“Democracy is messy but it works the way it does for a reason,” she says. “I’m far more savvy and appreciative of the checks and balances that are put in place. ... Sometimes it doesn’t feel very good to be on the receiving end of someone with a different point of view but it all happens for a reason.”