President Barack Obama and Sally Jewell applaud outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar after President Obama announced Jewell as his nominee to replace Salazar, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Feb. 6, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Sally Jewell served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Barack Obama, where she focused on developing a strong economy while preserving the sustainability of the natural world and its diverse people. Before serving as Interior Secretary, Jewell was President and CEO of REI, a $2.6 billion outdoor retailer. She is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Washington College of the Environment.

Harvard Political Review: Much of your career has been focused on connecting people with the outdoors. As people move into cities and become urbanized more and more, how can businesses and government make sure that individuals do not lose touch with the natural environment?

Sally Jewell: That is one of the critical issues of our time. If we expect to have natural areas, national parks, and public and city parks, people have to feel a connection to nature. I think what we need to do at [the] every level of public land management is make sure that we are making the outdoors part of people’s everyday lives. It might look like safe routes to school to ride bikes. It might look like a park or an open space with an easy walk. It might look like outdoor activities as part of daycare centers or afterschool programs. Bringing back recess and getting kids outside and comfortable in that environment is critical, not just for those children and their health, but also for recognizing that nature is fundamental to our souls. We have to create a continuum that reconnects an increasingly disconnected population to nature and the outdoors.

HPR: Your time as CEO of REI was spent expanding their advocacy efforts. How do you think that played a role in policymaking, and should other businesses be taking the same approach?

SJ: My work at REI helped me understand the value of the national parks and recreation in the outdoors. I also learned how big and important the outdoor recreational economy is. Right now, there is a lot of rhetoric about extractive industry jobs and how valuable those are. What about the jobs in tourism, outdoor recreation, and designing products for the outdoors? It is a 7.6 million job industry with over $800 billion of economic impact. It generates far more in federal and state revenue than the oil and gas industries generate in royalties to the federal and state governments. Protected lands have enormous value. They are not just there for us to extract resources.

HPR: While it is true that you did a lot of advocacy, there is a lot of work left to be done in increasing awareness of those issues. Do you think other businesses should be stepping up? If so, how can they make that happen?

SJ: There is an adage that I learned when I was at REI and beginning to engage with members of Congress on the importance of public lands: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Those industries that want to extract resources from public lands, which I acknowledge are part of the economy, are very wealthy industries that are effective at getting their point across by making contributions to candidates and making sure that their interests are protected. If you look at outdoor recreation and tourism, there is very little political engagement. In July 2017, I met with outdoor industry leadership at the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show, and said: “Our public lands are under threat right now with the Trump administration. Don’t take for granted that someone is going to carry that water for you. It is your job, on behalf of your industry and the people that you employ and serve as customers, and your shareholders, that you be engaged politically, that you help politicians understand how important these public lands are to businesses and state economies, and how you’re going to hold them accountable for making smart decisions that actually benefit people.” This message cannot be carried by environmental groups alone on behalf of our public lands.

HPR: You have had a unique career, in that you have worked both in the oil industry and as an environmental regulator. Where do you think we lose nuance in the debate between those two groups, and where can they find common ground?

SJ: We all have benefitted from the ability to unlock hundreds of millions of years of energy generation, stored in the form of oil and gas and coal, to burn in the here and now, and to drive the industrialization of the world. We have also now learned that there are impacts to those decisions that have a long-term bearing. As a petroleum engineer early in my career and as an engineer in a bank that worked in all kinds of extractive industries, I have an understanding of those tradeoffs. I do not think anyone gets up in the morning and goes to work saying, “I want to damage the Earth. I want to leave a mess for my children and my children’s children and generations forward.” Everybody wants to find the right balance that allows them to raise their family, enjoy nature, and be proud of what they are leaving to future generations.

I think that every area of our decision-making process would benefit from people sitting down with different ideological points of view to reach common ground. The primaries tend to bring out the extremes with low voter turnout [that tends] to be more polarized than the population at large, so the centrist often does not win during the primary. This is something we need to work on because the American public wants people to work together. They want people to listen. They are very frustrated, whether they are on the right or left, with the lack of any kind of forward progress. We would be well served to look at this problem on a bipartisan basis.

HPR: One of the most controversial positions you took as Secretary was [opposing] federal and state bans on fracking, saying that we needed more research. What do you think about that issue today? 

SJ: I have fracked wells. I worked as a petroleum engineer. I understand the process and the risks. Most companies are responsible actors and want to do the right thing. But, up and down the chain, there are people that are not responsible actors [who] need to be held to account. Because the new fracking and the horizontal drilling has unlocked a lot of tight gas and oil reserves, it is happening in states that have little oil and gas experience in the past and have no regulation. While we listen to the states and the local governments, and we want to synchronize those regulations, we had a baseline minimum standard. There are people on the environmental side that say all fracking is bad and evil. I do not think that is accurate, and I do not think that reflects an understanding of the physics and how the drilling is being done now. Actually, when you can put 20 wells on a two-acre pad and extract from a very broad area, that is far less environmentally damaging than if you put them on five acres or ten acres and disturbed the entire landscape, which is the way it used to be done.

I also know, however, that there is a desire, and I share that desire, to move our economy away from a fossil fuel industry, to move towards renewables. We now understand the impact of carbon on our atmosphere. We understand the impact of methane. We also regulated the flaring and venting of methane. These are things we did not understand when I was in the industry. We do understand today, and it is our job as regulators to take the best available science and say, “How do we apply that?” I am hopeful that thoughtful regulations will stand the test of time.

HPR: Do you have any regrets from your tenure?

SJ: I was in the middle of a lot of things when the transition occurred. One of those things is the federal coal program: leasing, largely in the Powder River Basin, coal seams that are 40 to 75 feet thick. They are being leased to coal companies without competition for those bids and without regard to the impact of the burning of that coal on the environment. Sometimes, they are sold for less than a dollar a ton. Royalties that should be paid to the state and the federal government to benefit all people were being circumvented in some cases by coal companies mining the coal, selling it to a second company that they actually owned, and then selling it for five times, or even ten times, the price to a foreign buyer and paying royalties only on that initial sale. The taxpayer was losing out, so we did a programmatic environmental impact statement that I started. The Trump administration dropped that progress. I regret that we did not start it sooner and I regret that we did not get it done.

HPR: One big thing that happened while you were Secretary was the Standing Rock demonstration. Did you feel constrained by the Obama administration at all as that was going on, and what are your thoughts on that movement?

SJ: I think that the situation with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Standing Rock Tribe was an opportunity to educate the entire American public on the trust and treaty obligations that our federal government has to Native American tribes whose land we took in exchange for treaties that we are not fully upholding. I applaud the Standing Rock Tribe, and Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the tribe, for standing up for their rights.

I am not against pipelines, and neither is Chairman Archambault or the tribe, but the decision not to run it in the most direct way, which would have gone north of Bismarck, North Dakota, but instead to run it south, very close to Standing Rock, was a bridge too far. Bismarck said, “We don’t want it here because it might pollute our water supply. If it leaks, it could impact the citizens of Bismarck,” even though the citizens of Bismarck are generally benefitting from the oil economy. It has not benefitted the economy of Standing Rock because they are too far removed from where that oil and gas is. Standing Rock gets the pipeline and the risk without any of the economic benefits.

Even though oil is flowing through that pipeline, they have won a war in the sense that people recognize tribal rights in the nation, and I think that they have energized indigenous communities to stand up for their rights. This is going to play out across the nation when other circumstances like this arrive. Overall, I think it was a positive. I am very proud of the Obama administration.

HPR: What are your former employees and career staff telling you about morale at the department, especially considering that many of them are leaving?

SJ: One of the biggest fears I have is that the incredible talent that I saw across the federal government is not feeling valued right now, for all kinds of reasons: budgets, comments, and quotes attributed to this administration—and my successor in particular—undermine people’s sense of value. Frankly, there are very few careers out there where you can have as much of an impact as you can in federal government service, or in government service at any level. If I say anything to career staff, it is this: I know we have ups and downs, I hope you hang in there. The American people are relying on you hanging in there and continuing to bring your expertise to the table, even if you may not feel as valued as you should. My worry is that incredibly talented people will leave, the positions will be eliminated, and then we are in a downward spiral of less ability of the government to serve people.


Image Credit: Obama White House Archives/Pete Souza

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here