Sally Jewell on the Future of the Department of the Interior

By Chris Keyes,


During her four-year tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, a former oil-industry engineer and CEO of REI, has helped designate 18 new national monuments, increase youth engagement in the national parks, and limit access for energy exploration. As a Trump administration with very different views on conservation prepares to take the reins in Washington, Christopher Keyes sat down with the secretary to discuss her legacy—and the uncertain future of America’s public lands.


KEYES: It’s now nine days after the election. What’s the mood like at Interior?
JEWELL: Well, let’s say it was a reflective day for all of us. Back in 2008, when I was at REI, the worst quarter I had was when President Obama won the election. Our sales were down 20 percent. I ended up laying off 800 people. At the Department of the Interior, we had a minerals-management service that was accused, rightfully, of illegal activity with the oil and gas industry. About a year into his presidency, we had the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I think that there’s certainly disappointment about the election, but when I reflect on what we inherited eight years ago, I feel good about what we’re handing over to the next administration.

In President Obama’s first meeting with President-elect Trump, he advocated for Obamacare. If you were sitting down with your successor, what would you fight for?
I hope I do have that opportunity, because once you’re sitting in this chair, and you understand the size and complexity of your work, you look at it a little differently than when you first came in. So what I would say to that new secretary: We all come with a set of skills, and those are useful but not sufficient, so surround yourself with people that help fill that gap. Second, this job is about listening deeply to different points of view. You can’t go in with a fixed frame.

What about a specific policy?
The most pressing issue of our time is climate change. You cannot be the Secretary of the Interior and deal with the wildfires and the droughts and the invasive species and coastal erosion without recognizing that climate change is real. I would discuss that.

And if that person is a climate-change denier?
No matter what beliefs a person comes into this position with, the job has a way of showing you what’s really going on.

During the campaign, Trump promised to “streamline the permitting process for all energy projects.” How quickly might his team be able to undo your efforts to place certain areas off-limits?
What businesses want is certainty. You don’t mind playing by the rules, but you want to know what the rules are. And when the rules are stretched, like the environmental-impact statements that are required, you will get challenged in court. What we’ve done in this administration is identify the areas that are appropriate to develop and the areas that should be off-limits to development, and we codified some of that, with, for example, national monument designations. That’s not going to get rolled back, because those decisions remove the conflicts surrounding those areas in advance. It’s expensive for companies to be involved with protracted litigation.

Will the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be back in play? 
There’s little doubt that there’s oil under the coastal plain of ANWR, but I believe there are some places that should remain off-limits. It took decades to update the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s comprehensive conservation plan, which said that the area should not be developed because disturbance would have irreparable impact on caribou. It would have to be redone if oil and gas development is to be supported. Or Congress would have to step up and say, We see the science and we’re going to ignore it. And I believe the American people will hold their elected officials accountable for that.

But a lot of these issues never even get talked about in the campaigns. The idea that we’ll hold elected officials accountable for environmental policy hasn’t played out. 
It’s our responsibility to make our positions known. If people don’t make their voices heard, those who do will be the squeaky wheel. Before I took this job, I went to Washington, D.C., with other people from the outdoor industry to make the case to members of Congress, and I wondered, Is anybody really listening? I will say that, from this side now, yes, people are hearing you. And if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. If we’re not talking about environmental issues, if the only things being discussed are trade policies and health care reform and taxes, we can’t be surprised when it doesn’t come up as a major issue in the campaign.

As you mention, the outdoor industry has been flexing its muscles recently. The Outdoor Recreation’s Economic Contributions Act, which requires the government to account for the estimated $646 billion economic contribution of the outdoor economy, passed the House this week. 
Yes, the first outdoor-industry study based on hard data showed that the recreation economy is almost as big as pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles, and motor-vehicle parts combined. That is extraordinary. That narrative has been lost, oftentimes, to the value of public lands for extractive purposes. But what the REC Act begins to do is to monetize the value of lands in conservation. This is an industry that employs millions of people. It supports rural economies. The legislation will ensure that it continues.

In addition to pressure to increase oil and gas leasing, there is a growing idea that our federal lands should be given back to the states to be managed locally. Why is that a bad idea?
The reality is that state budgets are not in great shape. One Republican western governor, and I won’t name names, said to me, “Sally, I don’t want to take over control of the lands you manage. You spend more on firefighting in my state than I spend on education and criminal justice combined.” So the people making that case are ignoring the fact that the firefighting and the invasive-species management and the permitting—that doesn’t come for free. Without federal funds, it leaves states with lands that you’re going to have to support either through increased taxation or by selling the land to the highest bidder, and we think that’s dead wrong.

You’ve stressed the need to expose more youth and minorities to our public land. Why is this so important?
We have got to create an environment where children feel welcome and safe in the outdoors. I’m Caucasian. I grew up playing in the outdoors, and that’s generally who I see there. That is not a reflection of the American population. When I moved to Washington, D.C., it was very evident to me that we have a lot of Civil War heroes, most of them male, most of them on horseback, at many of the intersections, but I saw very few women, almost no people of color. I’m really proud of the fact that [this administration] created the César E. Chávez National Monument, created the Harriet Tubman National Monument, and the Stonewall National Monument in New York City that talks about the struggle for LGBT rights. We’ve also done a lot of work to help kids become comfortable in the outdoors, which starts with just getting out there. We launched Every Kid in a Park, enabling four million fourth-graders to go to all of America’s lands and waters for free.

Will that continue? My daughter is in fourth grade next year. 
It will get funded. The incremental cost of the program is relatively minor, and it’s a program that makes so much sense. When you take that nine- or ten-year-old child and you remove that one barrier, and you say you can take a whole carful of people, that instills a great sense of pride. But then there is the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, our modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s not funded by the federal government in total, but in the course of the time I will have been here, we will see 100,000 young people out doing volunteer service or paid service on public land. It’s connecting them to a place that will never leave them.

When your term comes up in January, you and your husband plan to get in your Prius for a long road trip back to Washington State. What will you miss about this role as you drive away?
Well, one slight correction. We did actually trade in our Prius for a Subaru Outback. The kind of public lands I want to get out in require more ground clearance!

You know, this is an intense job, a job that has meant the world to me. I don’t know yet how to put this incredible knowledge to good use. I’m getting a break, but I’m not done. What does not done look like? There is no better place to figure that out, to get clarity, than Mother Nature.

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