Washington • The Senate confirmed a new steward over America’s natural riches on Wednesday, a woman who will become a key figure in Utah’s long-fought battle over what land to protect and where to drill.
Sally Jewell, the former chief executive at REI, will serve as the next secretary of the Interior after receiving the support of Sen. Orrin Hatch and 86 other senators. Only 11 opposed her nomination, among them was Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who expects Jewell to follow the script set by outgoing Secretary Ken Salazar, a former senator from Colorado, who held the post throughout President Barack Obama’s first term.
Salazar infuriated Utah officials by moving to block oil and gas leases approved late in President George W. Bush’s term and he also disappointed some environmental groups, like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which had hoped he would move more aggressively to protect Utah’s wild lands.
SUWA’s legislative director Richard Peterson-Creamer said he’s "optimistic" about Jewell’s potential impact in the debate.
"We see a lot of potential in her background," he said. "She was a stanch supporter of conservation at REI."
Jewell, who previously worked for an oil company and as a bank executive, had no trouble making it through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She received the support of 19 of the 22 members, with Lee once again standing in opposition.
While appreciative of her business background, Lee was disturbed by her previous spot on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, which sued the government 54 times during her tenure there.
"Ms. Jewell’s experience in public-land policy involves active participation in organizations that continually sue to restrict access to public land and prevent development of natural resources in Utah and across the West," Lee said. "For these reasons I opposed her appointment. But having been confirmed, I will make every effort to work with Ms. Jewell on these critical issues for Utah."
Hatch said he supported Jewell after she promised to work with local officials on public lands and energy development in the West.
"I’m going to hold her feet to the fire to ensure Utah’s voice is heard and that the federal government doesn’t walk over what’s important to us in our state," he said.
The Interior secretary is always a major player in the politics of western states like Utah. The federal government owns 63 percent of the land in Utah and the state is home to five national parks.
In recent years, state officials have tried to force the federal government to transfer ownership of millions of acres to the state, expressing frustration at federal restrictions on what lands can be used for development and energy extraction.
Gov. Gary Herbert expressed some optimism about the federal-state relationship, given Jewell’s background.
"Secretary Jewell and I have a lot to talk about. I appreciate that she’s not just another Washington insider, but she brings some real business acumen and problem-solving sense to the post, and I’m very interested in meeting with her soon to discuss the unique nature of Utah’s issues and the West," Herbert said.
Beyond Lee’s position on the Energy Committee, Reps. Rob Bishop and Christ Stewart sit on the House Natural Resources Committee and have sparred with the Obama administration.
Bishop responded skeptically to Jewell’s nomination saying that REI has supported environmental groups like SUWA, which he says have "radical political agendas."
On Wednesday, Bishop said he hopes Jewell will use her business experience to use federal resources wisely and that "she will be mindful that the priorities she sought to advance on behalf of Recreational Equipment Inc. are not necessarily those of the entire United States."
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