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'Nation's largest landlord' finds democracy messy

A year into the job as the nation’s largest landlord, Washington, D.C., outsider finds that “democracy is messy.”



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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."

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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.


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"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).

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