Can Sally Jewell interest a new generation in public lands?

  • Sally Jewell, REI president and CEO, is President Obama's nominee to replace Ken Salazar as secretary of the Interior Department.

    Courtesy REI

The giant flagship store of REI -- Recreational Equipment Inc. -- is a steel- and timber-framed temple to outdoor consumerism, complete with a glass steeple that encases an indoor climbing spire. It's something of a spiritual center for downtown Seattle, where "business casual" includes pants with zip-off legs and Vibram 5 Finger "barefoot running" shoes. On an ordinary weekend, hiking the wooded trails on nearby Tiger Mountain, you're likely to run into people schlepping enough gear to tackle a Himalayan expedition -- and, to be fair, some are preparing to do just that.

This is the world of Sally Jewell, REI's 56-year-old CEO, frequent mountain climber, and President Obama's nominee for secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It's about as far from the cowboy-hat-wearing farming and ranching culture of current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- and many of his predecessors -- as you could get this side of the Mississippi.

If the Senate confirms Jewell, as seems likely, she will oversee the national parks, wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Land Management holdings that make up fully one-fifth of the country, and a much larger portion of the West. She will also serve as the government's chief liaison with Indian tribes and become "master" of the region's rivers.

Much of Jewell's work will involve finishing what Salazar started: Overseeing major domestic energy development, including on- and off-shore oil, gas and wind energy. She will inherit decades-old fights over wilderness, water, endangered species and wild horses. But perhaps her greatest challenge -- and one for which she may be uniquely suited -- will be to begin to make the public lands, and her department, relevant to a diverse new generation of wired and largely urban Westerners.

Jewell likely caught the president's attention due to her industry's recent rise into the national spotlight. A 2012 report from the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, estimates that Americans spend $645 billion annually on outdoor recreation. "To put our industry into perspective, we're 50 percent larger than domestic mining and drilling," Jewell said, unveiling the report at a press conference. "We're a little less effective at lobbying than the extractive industries, but we're an important part of the economy."

Ironically, however, Jewell will take over Interior even as her industry faces a crisis. A 2012 report from the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, found that although a third of outdoor recreationists are between the ages of 6 and 24, participation slackens with age, meaning that the overall numbers could decline dramatically in the coming decades. The report also found that 78 percent of participants are white, in a country that, according the U.S. Census Bureau, will have more non-white than white children in five years, and will be "majority minority" within three decades.

Jewell has helped lead the effort to get more young people and people of color into the outdoors. REI's 100-plus stores offer classes, outings and volunteer opportunities. The company-funded REI Foundation made $445,000 in grants in 2011 to organizations focused on getting children and families, particularly people of color, outside. A gift of $150,000 to the Outdoor Foundation funded a series of youth summits under the banner of "Outdoor Nation," billed as a youth-led movement to reconnect young people to the natural world.

In 2011, Jewell was a featured speaker at a White House Conference on the Obama administration's sweeping Great Outdoors initiative. Among other things, it calls for the creation of a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, funded by fees collected from offshore oil and gas leasing. Greens hope that efforts like these will help nurture a new generation of conservationists at a time when the membership of environmental organizations, like the outdoor recreation crowd, is dominated by graying white folks.

Interior is in the midst of its own demographic crisis. More than half its employees are over 50; 34 percent will be eligible to retire within five years. Salazar's Interior created an "inclusive workplace strategy," with diversity training for mid-level managers, and a new youth office that engages young people from communities with historically lower participation rates, as well as young women and girls.

Interior has already increased the number of young hires exponentially, says Rhea Suh, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. The challenges "present us with huge opportunities to bring varied backgrounds and perspectives to our workplace."

All this talk of getting more people outdoors does not sit well with everyone, given that land-management budgets are in shambles and there are billions of dollars worth of maintenance backlogs. Conservationists and cash-strapped land managers have fretted for years about public lands being "loved to death."

Which brings us to Sally Jewell's final challenge. Obama has promised to increase drilling on public lands while also balancing development with conservation. To date, however, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, he has protected less land administratively than any of the previous four presidents.

Republicans in Congress are sure to obstruct significant conservation bills and throw up roadblocks to administrative changes. (The GOP stripped the funding from Salazar's most ambitious conservation initiative, which would have allowed the BLM to survey and protect areas with wilderness characteristics.) But Obama has one tool that he can wield without congressional input: The Antiquities Act. Bruce Babbitt, President Clinton's Interior secretary, famously helped convince Clinton to use the act to create a slew of new national monuments.

In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama threatened to take action on climate change if Congress fails to do so. Perhaps, with a little nudging from Jewell and the outdoor industry, he can be convinced that America's favorite playgrounds are equally worthy of forceful action.

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