Sally Jewell speaks at Commencement 2014

When U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell is not in the nation’s capital, the cabinet official can be found roaming the West celebrating with mariachi bands or retracing the footsteps of Billy the Kid and Geronimo. Prior to delivering Whitman’s 2014 Commencement speech, the former CEO of REI sat down with Whitman Magazine.

By Daniel F. Le Ray
Photo by Matt Banderas '04

Whitman Magazine: The Department of the Interior is responsible for both safeguarding the country’s natural resources and using them for economic development and energy production. How do you balance these sometimes competing interests?
Sally Jewell: The job is full of conflict. There’s almost no decision that I make that doesn’t make somebody mad in some way or other. Within the department, we have tremendously committed public servants carrying out the laws and the missions that were identified for them by Congress. It’s not uncommon sometimes to find those laws in conflict with one another. Fish and Wildlife Service is largely responsible for carrying out the Endangered Species Act, and as we support development in wind energy, for example – which I see all around Walla Walla – that has impacts on bird species. [Fish and Wildlife] upholds something called the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which was an act passed to preserve those species, and sometimes those species are impacted, as are bats, by wind energy.

So how do you manage these conflicts?
By getting people in the room together to understand each other’s missions, to understand each other’s positions and seek that common ground, and we’ve absolutely seen that, particularly over the course of the Obama administration – but there are examples from before that as well.

What kind of impact do you see from climate change in your day-to-day work?
You’ve got challenges to the landscapes from climate change like the pine bark beetle kill in the Rocky Mountains, droughts in California, too much water in some places, too little in other places. [The] changing nature of our landscapes with invasive species – whether they’re species of bugs or microbes that are impacting flora and fauna or slight changes in temperature as with the pine bark beetle – have resulted in making it much more difficult to ensure the future of some of the species that are dependent on those ecosystems.

Interior also works with 566 federally-recognized Native American tribes and Alaska Natives. What challenges do these tribes face?
There are lots of examples where we uphold trust and treaty obligations to Indian tribes. Some of the biggest challenges the tribes face are around water rights and people wanting their water in places where there’s a challenge on water like California or the Colorado River basin. You end up with tribes exercising their rights, states wanting more water, and the Bureau of Reclamation – part of Interior – often finds itself in the middle. One of the key things that we’re doing is trying to work in advance to find common ground and compromise so that we don’t end up fighting for years and so that, for states and regions and communities that depend on development or ongoing use of the lands in some way, we can provide certainty and help them understand what they need to do to maintain a sustainable ecosystem.

How is running REI different from working for the federal government?
There are huge differences. One is the way the budget works. In business, you can look to the future and can say, “What’s changing? What opportunities do I have? Where do I want to place some bets in terms of investment? Where do I want to scale back?” You can look five, 10, 15 years in the future and structure budgets accordingly. With the federal government, you don’t have that kind of flexibility. We are in the forever business. National parks, tribal relations, water, the U.S. Geological Survey: All of these things are helping chart our future forever, and yet we lurch from year to year just begging for money to keep the basic services we need operating, and without the flexibility to restructure that big business has.
[Another] is: in business you’re rewarded for taking risk. You’re rewarded handsomely for taking risk. When you make mistakes, people still applaud you for trying. [In] the federal government, [if] you step out there and take a risk and it doesn’t work, then you’re called in front of a Congressional Hearing. So you end up with people being gun shy about trying new things.

How do you encourage “good” risk-taking in your new job?
For me, I think the intersection is: how can I provide an environment where people can step out and take risks knowing that I have their back, that [they’re] not going to be thrown under the bus for trying something that they feel is going to be better for the American people.

What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
One of the things that is a delight is how committed the people are to the work they do. They get the job done for the American people, and people don’t even know they’re doing their work. That is true all over the federal government.
Getting out into the lands that we manage, getting out onto reservations and meeting with tribal leaders and just getting a sense of the wisdom and the potential that exists to work more cooperatively with tribes on traditional ecological knowledge – those are also great opportunities.

What Western “lands” have you recently visited?
It is nice to get out of Washington, D.C., and to get to some of the most beautiful places on the planet. On Wednesday, the President named the newest national monument – the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces, N.M. Friday we flew there and got to go hiking with Senator [Tom] Udall [of New Mexico] and a number of others in the Organ Mountains area. Then we celebrated this great asset that has been there since dinosaurs roamed the earth with hundreds and hundreds of community members and mariachi bands. There’s evidence of dinosaurs, of prehistoric people going back 10,000 years. There’s the Butterfield [Overland Mail Trail] stagecoach line that still runs through there; there’s the outlaw’s cave that Billy the Kid scratched his name into; there’s Geronimo’s cave where he disappeared and it’s full of pictographs and rock art and all kinds of things. So that’s really fun.

Are you a fan of “House of Cards”?
Well, I’ll tell you, in jobs like these, I’d be surprised if anyone has time to watch television!