Sally Jewell has long been a major player in the Pacific Northwest. But she leapt onto a much larger stage when President Barack Obama appointed her as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 2013, citing her expertise on energy and climate issues and focus on building nation-to-nation relationships. In nominating Jewell, President Obama said, “She knows the link between conservation and good jobs. She knows that there's no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.”
Jewell is the second woman in our nation’s history to hold the cabinet-level job.
Before moving to Washington, D.C., Jewell served as president and CEO of Recreation Equipment, Inc. Under her leadership, REI’s annual sales nearly tripled to $2 billion and the company was consistently ranked among Fortune magazine’s 100 best companies to work for.
I first met her a couple of decades ago when she was a bank executive in Seattle. We were both at a gathering drumming up support for an annual climb of Mount Rainier to benefit the American Lung Association. I thought it pretty cool that I had climbed it once. Jewell has summited Rainier seven times!
Despite her lofty achievements on mountains and in boardrooms, Jewell exudes warmth and authenticity. She is a no-nonsense leader who can swap a business suit for climbing gear in the blink of an eye. A former boss at Washington Mutual describes her this way: “genuine, engaging, highly capable, thoughtful, a straight shooter.”
Jewell has taken those qualities and more to her daunting position as U.S. Interior Secretary. Her department oversees more than 70,000 employees — the largest and most diverse in the U.S. government. At this writing, Jewell is busy wrapping up her final days as part of the outgoing Obama administration.
Before the election, Jewell took some of her extremely valuable time to answer a few questions about her accomplishments, her love of the outdoors, her ambitious initiatives to get more kids outside, and what comes next after packing up her office on Capitol Hill.
2016 celebrated 100 years of the National Park Service. As we end the year, do you think the anniversary changed America's appreciation of our parks in some way?
There’s no question that the work that’s been done by many groups — particularly the National Park Foundation, the National Park Service and local park friends groups — to raise awareness of America’s national parks has been incredibly successful. While we haven’t tallied the numbers yet on 2016, we know we had record attendance in 2015 at 307 million people, and our parks across the country have indicated that they’ve had increases above that level — as much as 20 percent in some of the larger parks.
In addition to increased visitation in our more well-known parks, we have seen an increase in visitation at our lesser-known parks — many that tell the story of our history, our struggles and our triumphs. Having been out in a number of the parks myself, I hear people say they are amazed by what they see and learn. And while at times our more popular parks may feel crowded, if you walk just a quarter of a mile away from the road, you’ll find yourself in relative solitude. We are confident that as more people feel connected to the national parks by experiencing their magnificence and through seeing their own stories reflected, the more they will recognize that these assets belong to them, and they will make visiting them a part of their family traditions. That exposure and engagement will ensure the kind of support that’s needed for the next century of the National Park Service.
You launched the Every Kid in a Park campaign during your tenure as Interior Secretary. What was the goal, and has it been successful?
Every Kid in a Park has been very successful in its inaugural year with about two million passes downloaded from the website — everykidinapark.gov — and it’s ramping up as more teachers, parents and students become aware of the program. Our vision is to create a deep connection to national parks and public lands for all children that is sparked in the fourth grade. Children are naturally curious and there is no better classroom to engage that curiosity than the one with no walls — Mother Nature.
One of our goals has been to reduce the barriers to experiencing national parks and public lands to underrepresented communities. Businesses and organizations have stepped up to provide support, organizing crowdfunding campaigns and donating money to get children from low-income communities out into parks, but we’re only just beginning. There are about four million fourth graders out there, and we hope that in each successive year the pride of every child using their free pass to take their family and friends to the national parks will grow in awareness and popularity, and then truly over the course of that 12-year period, we will get every kid in a park and build a new generation of young people who understand, appreciate and value their public lands.
Do you have a favorite national park?
I love all of our parks and public lands — each represents something special and unique, and provides an opportunity to learn. I’ve been to national parks across the country, and not just in this job. In 1977, I loaded up my car and drove across the United States solo, staying in many national parks. The thing that is so great about our park system is that it includes some of the world’s most amazing natural treasures, but also places that help us understand our rich culture, our painful chapters, and our march toward a more perfect union.
Over the years, my travels have given me a deep appreciation of the National Park Service as a very democratic idea — to bring the best parts of our country to all Americans, and to visitors from around the world — not just to set them aside for a select few. My travels in this job to other parts of the world have opened my eyes to how unique our national parks system is, and how many countries in the world are looking to learn from our experience.
Is it possible to “love our parks to death” with too many visitors? What’s necessary to protect these sacred spaces?
That’s a common question, and the short answer is we do want to ensure that when visitors come to the parks they have a good experience, yet we want to share these special places with anyone that would like to visit. The National Park Service is getting more creative in spreading out the visitors so they have a good experience. In Zion National Park, you don’t drive your personal car in; you take a bus. Bus service is also available at Yosemite, so you can have a great visit without spending all of your time in traffic. We’re learning from those parks and applying that in places like Glacier National Park.
Besides the parks that are the best-known and the most crowded, we’ve got so many assets that aren't equally on the public’s radar. Part of the job of the National Park Service, and our partners like the National Park Foundation and National Parks Conservation Association, is to raise awareness about the many parks that are under-visited but provide incredible experiences.
Do the great outdoors feed your soul?
Yes! I feel that nature and the outdoors feed all of our souls as human beings, not to mention promote good health.
I feel that nature and the outdoors feed all of our souls as human beings
But there are many factors that make it increasingly difficult to connect people to nature, from the trend towards urbanization, to leading busy, overscheduled lives, to technology that draws away our time and attention, particularly for children. We believe a solution lies in providing a continuum of exposure — play, learn, serve and work — that builds comfort and confidence in the outdoors for young people, and nurtures their curiosity and a connection to nature that will never leave them. Parents, schools, service organizations and public servants at every level can help by supporting local parks and unstructured play for children.
What are your favorite outdoor activities?
It all depends on the season and where I am. Hiking is easy — all you need is a pair of shoes and some instructions on where to go and those are readily available online. As I go out across the country even on a business trip, I’ll find a place to walk and connect with nature. I love all kinds of outdoor activities — some are more equipment-intensive and less easy to take with you than a pair of shoes. I miss skiing, which I haven’t done much since I’ve been East, but I look forward to getting back into that when I go back to Seattle.
It’s delightful to be on the water, as I was recently in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, one of our newest land-based national park units. As I floated along the east branch of the Penobscot River in moose habitat, I took in the beginning hints of the legendary fall colors and could see evidence of the importance of this place for local tribes that gathered along those river banks. Really, any way you can enjoy the outdoors that fits your skillset, your comfort level, and what you have available is wonderful — even if it’s a scenic drive and opportunity to take in a view and breathe some fresh air.
Looking back — as you move through these final days of the Obama administration — what do you want your legacy to be as Secretary of the Interior?
I feel very privileged to be a public servant, working alongside many dedicated people in the Department of the Interior, an agency that preserves and protects the legacy of all Americans in so many ways. From furthering our knowledge of science to upholding our treaties to Native Americans to thoughtfully managing public lands, waters and wildlife for current and future generations, we have listened, studied, learned and made decisions with a long-term, thoughtful view.
There are a few areas where we have made real progress. Our relationships with American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians have never been stronger — moving beyond a history of conflict to one of cooperation and mutual respect for tribal sovereignty and fulfilling the U.S. government’s trust and treaty obligations. We have particularly focused on native youth, undertaking reform of the Bureau of Indian Education, engaging young native people through “Generation Indigenous,” supported restoration of tribal homelands to promote economic opportunities, and coordinated across agencies to better address the challenges that native communities, particularly youth, face.
We have deepened opportunities to connect young people to nature, including cultivating partnerships between federal land management agencies, cities across the country, the YMCA and other youth-serving organizations to facilitate long-lasting relationships that will connect more children to nature.
We have supported studies to help the National Park Service tell a more complete story of America, one that honors and celebrates our nation’s rich diversity and the contributions of many groups whose stories have yet to be told. From national historic sites and landmarks to new national monuments like Honouliuli, Pullman, Belmont Paul Women’s Equality, Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez and more, we are proud that now more Americans can see themselves and part of their history reflected in our national parks.
We are proud that now more Americans can see themselves and part of their history reflected in our national parks.
What will you miss most when you leave office? The least?
I’ll miss being a public servant, knowing that the work we have accomplished with my colleagues across the Department of the Interior and beyond will positively impact people and our environment for generations to come. I’ll also miss working with the dedicated men and women who serve across the country, getting out with them in their element — in the field, on tribal lands, and in their science labs and offices, witnessing the incredible work they do.
As for things I will miss the least, this has been a very difficult and partisan time in our government. I believe that nearly everyone cares about having a healthy environment for our nation’s children and leaving the world a better place than we found it. From America’s National Parks, to respecting tribal communities, to investing in science, to striking the right balance between economic development and conservation, we have many opportunities to work together. But, cooperation and collaboration across party lines has not been the norm in Congress and I won’t miss partisanship getting in the way of thoughtful collaboration. I profoundly hope that we get past this dysfunction, because this is an incredible democracy that has done amazing things, and we owe it to future generations to make smart, collective decisions that serve their interests and those of people around the world.
We all want to know what Sally Jewell is going to do next.
I am going to join my husband Warren and take a long, slow road trip back to Seattle, enjoying many of our public lands, touching base with some of the tribal communities that I've gotten to know, enjoying parts of the warm Southwest in the cool of spring, sailing in the Inside Passage, all the while figuring out how to put this amazing knowledge I’ve gained to work for the future.