Sally Jewell.
Sally Jewell.

What Sally Jewell’s Nomination Means for the Outdoor Industry

With Jewell, the CEO and president of REI, at the helm of the Department of the Interior, could the industry finally find its green mojo?

Sally Jewell.

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Last June, Sally Jewell, the chief executive officer of Recreational Equipment Inc (REI), stood beside Christine Gregoire, then governor of Washington, and Utah Governor Gary Herbert to present the Western Governors’ Association’s report on the economic impact of outdoor recreation. It showed that Americans spend more money on outdoor recreation than they do on pharmaceuticals. More than on cars. More than on energy for their homes. In 2011, we spent $645 billion on outdoor recreation. The point of the report was to say: Look, the recreation industry is an economic powerhouse.

Many individuals and organizations within the outdoor gear industry believe it is not just an economic engine. They say the outdoor recreation industry is—or should be—a conservation engine. Groups such as the Conservation Alliance (founded by REI, Patagonia, The North Face, and Kelty) and the Outdoor Industry Association engage outdoor industry members to lobby for greater protections for and access to public lands for recreation. The Outdoor Industry Association even has a Political Action Committee (led in part by REI’s vice president of public affairs). It has had some victories, winning public lands protections that might not have happened without intense lobbying. But that was, as Greg Hanscom explains in High Country News, before the 2010 elections put many Tea Party conservatives into positions of power in the West, and before the Obama administration green-lit some large natural gas projects on federal land.

When it comes to public lands and their many uses, how can the outdoor industry possibly match the influence of the oil and gas industry? As Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar prepares to the leave Obama Cabinet, the answer might be in his replacement.

Last week, Jewell became President Obama’s candidate to succeed former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar. It’s an unusual choice, as this position typically goes to a Western politician. But it is clearly a strategic move on Obama’s part to try to bridge two of the missions of the department’s Bureau of Land Management that are often at odds: federal lands for recreation and wildlife versus federal lands for energy development. Before she led REI, Jewell was a banker. But before that, she was an engineer for Mobil. How many other candidates would have such a deep background in business, recreation, and energy?

“From where I sit this morning,” said John Sterling, Conservation Alliance’s executive director, on the day of Jewell’s nomination, “I can’t imagine she would not be nominated. My guess is that the Democrats will fall in line. The GOP would need to find something about her really abhorrent [to not approve her], and then they would have to filibuster.”

Unsurprisingly, outdoor industry leaders are very hopeful about the nomination and what it could do to elevate the industry’s position of power in Washington, D.C. “Anyone in the outdoor industry would be pleased that one of our own is likely to run the Interior Department,” Sterling says. “She is very pragmatic. Her experience in both the outdoor industry and oil industry will probably serve her well in running an agency that has conflicting mandates to provide energy and also provide [lands for recreation].”

“This nomination is an absolute game-changer,” says Peter Metcalf, CEO and president of Black Diamond Equipment. “So much of what happens in Washington, D.C., and in politics, is symbolic.” Jewell’s nomination is important, he adds, “not only because she is a woman and an executive—and I believe she’d be the first c-level executive in the job—but the most important part is that, though she has experience in banking and experience in the oil industry, those things aren’t what forged who she is. Her life has been forged by human-powered recreation, by a life of applying herself against mountains and canyons and crags. What that says to me is that politics has caught up to the fact that the highest, best use of the public lands is weighing that use toward recreation.”

Metcalf, who calls Jewell a “professional friend,” says Jewell has been a very high-profile CEO for REI. “She is engaged in public policy and has been a real driver in the level of activism REI plays,” he says. “REI under Sally Jewell was a wonderful leadership organization. It helped drive the industry forward, that’s very true with relation to stewardship, access, and not all but some wilderness issues.”

But how likely is Jewell to really move the needle away from energy and toward conservation?

To answer that, it’s important to first consider the lay of the land. “The Secretary of the Interior will have under her jurisdiction about a quarter of a billion acres of BLM land alone, and within that domain only a fraction is part of the National Landscape Conservation System inventory,” explains Ken Rait, director of the BLM Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Less than 11 percent of BLM’s quarter of a billion acres are protected.” In contrast with BLM, almost half of the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service are protected, and of course National Park Service lands have very strong protections.

The arguably harder conservation battles are in the BLM, where energy development or other extractive use pressures on federal lands are high. But with the National Park Service being in serious financial straits and facing some park closures, Jewell would have some pressing issues to oversee in that department, as well.

Historically, groups like the Conservation Alliance focus on issues that are “more in the Congressional nexus than the Department of Interior nexus, per se,” says Rait, but notes that “there are real conservation gains that the Secretary of the Interior can deliver. There is a great deal of room for movement.”

According to the Sunlight Foundation, Jewell has donated $11,000 to the Outdoor Industry Association. She also serves on a number of boards, including that of the Initiative for Global Development and the National Parks Conservation Association. While she is not a D.C. insider, she has been an active Democratic donor and worked closely with the Obama administration on the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which focuses on getting kids interested in outdoor play, partly by promoting urban parks and trails.

Jewell was rumored to have been an Interior Secretary candidate for Obama’s first term. But Metcalf says the timing is better now for Jewell; she’ll be more effective because Obama is redirecting his focus on environmental issues, whereas health care dominated his first term. Metcalf also thinks that with large reserves of natural gas already being extracted, the pressure on new energy exploration will be waning.

“I think Salazar also, unfortunately, used up a lot of capital himself during the [Deepwater Horizon] Gulf oil spill,” Metcalf adds, pointing to reports that the Interior Department had downplayed warnings that the project was risky because it worried about putting constraints on drilling.

For Jewell, it’s a new beginning and a prime time for impact, he says, because she won’t have to worry about re-election and because the significance of the recreation economy is something she can tout. Under her reign, REI climbed up from an uncertain future to become a $2 billion concern, which derives 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources.

“One thing I’ve seen Sally do really well is listen to different groups and find common ground with people with differing viewpoints,” says NPCA president Tom Kiernan. “That, combined with her let’s-get-going approach that she exemplified at REI, I think will suit her well” to deal with the challenges of leading the Interior Department.

“This is the time for the [outdoor recreation] industry to take delivery for what they’ve been asking for,”  Rait says. “This is their moment in the sun.”

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