Washington • Rep. Rob Bishop raised serious concerns about President Barack Obama's pick to head the Interior Department, saying Sally Jewell's company had supported "radical political agendas," while other Utahns and industry officials were less critical of the president's choice.
Obama announced Wednesday he would nominate Jewell, the president and chief executive officer of outdoor retailer Recreational Equipment Inc., to replace outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
If confirmed, Jewell would be the first non-politician in the role since Ronald Reagan's administration, and her past support for wilderness causes rankled those who want to see more drilling on federal lands.
"Her company has intimately supported several special-interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas," said Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs a House subcommittee overseeing public lands. "While I certainly respect her business expertise, the president had other options who possessed extensive experience with public policy in the West and the impacts of so much federally owned land."
The Interior Department incensed Republicans days into Obama's first term when it shelved 77 leases for oil and gas exploration, and that anger was exacerbated by Interior's short-lived attempt to circumvent Congress to protect sensitive landscapes by designating them as "wild lands." The latter announcement was made in front of REI's flagship store in Denver.
National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi said Jewell's nomination is a "bit of a surprise" and would be met with a "cautious wait-and-see approach" by the offshore energy industry.
That approach might be the same for energy companies hoping to open up more public land for drilling in Utah.
"The industry is optimistic that her background in the private sector will be a fresh perspective with the department of the Interior," said Jeff Hartley, a Utah energy consultant who notes that Jewell's work as an engineer for then-Mobil oil company may help her to understand the needs of the industry.
While Jewell is likely to face detractors during her confirmation process, environmental and conservation groups cheered Obama's choice, lauding her for pushing for protection of public lands for recreational uses.
"It's hard to imagine someone who has a broader background in the industry and also understands the ramifications of land policy to outdoor recreational uses," said Mark Ritchie, an executive of Black Diamond Equipment, Utah's largest manufacturer of skis, boots, climbing gear and other equipment used in outdoor recreation.
Kenji Haroutunian, vice president of the Nielsen Expo Outdoor Group who directs the Outdoor Retailer trade shows, said Jewell has intimate knowledge of the challenges facing the outdoor industry.
"To have a voice that close to the top leadership in the country is beyond our wildest dreams in a lot of ways," Haroutunian said.
Jewell has donated thousands of dollars to Democrats in Congress and to Obama, as well as forked over some $15,000 in recent years to the Outdoor Industry Association, which backs the proposal to create the Greater Canyonlands National Monument in southern Utah.
OIA President and CEO Frank Hugelmeyer, applauded Jewell's nomination. "Ms. Jewell recognizes that our nation's natural resources support the economy, local communities and the people whose lives depend on having access to quality places in the great outdoors. Treasury secretaries are chosen from the investment world, so it is appropriate that a Secretary for the Interior would be nominated from the outdoor recreation business world," he said.
Jewell's company, REI, is part of the Conservation Alliance, which has offered grants to Earthjustice in its fight to invalidate those controversial 77 acres and to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has pushed for designating some 9.4 million acres of wilderness in Utah.
"Sally Jewell has a tremendous record supporting important conservation measures while also understanding the numerous uses of our public lands," said Richard Peterson-Cremer, SUWA's legislative director. "Importantly for Utah, she is well-versed in the importance of the outdoor recreation economy and the crucial role that protected public lands play in its success."
Gov. Gary Herbert, in Washington for meetings, said he doesn't have a reason to be anything but optimistic about Jewell's appointment.
"We are not trying to get somebody who sees everything like Gary Herbert," the governor said. "I don't need another clone there, but we hope we have people with open minds willing to look at the perspective of a balanced approach."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Interior's record of working with state and local officials under Obama has been "subpar at best," but that he's hopeful Jewell will see her role as balancing the needs of the various interests.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, too, said he has been concerned with proposals out of Obama's Interior Department but will wait to hear Jewell's take on how she would approach the job before deciding how he will vote.
Freshman Rep. Chris Stewart expressed reservations.
"I have no doubt that Sally Jewell has great business experience. I do worry however, that through her work at REI, she has been tied to only one of many the multiple uses for which the great lands of Utah are famous. I hope that if Jewell does become the next Secretary of Interior, she will be responsive to the economic issues facing the western states including motorized access, grazing, mining, and drilling, in addition to tourism and non-motorized recreation."
Brian Maffly, Mike Gorrell and Matt Canham contributed to this story.