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The “Forever Business”: Q&A with former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell

Sally Jewell, Former Secretary of the Interior, sat down with Woods Director Chris Field to talk about the perspectives and lessons she gained from her career in the public and private sectors.

Edited excerpts and video of the January 30, 2018 conversation are below.

Q: Before you began your role as Secretary of the Interior, you were the CEO of REI, one of the largest outdoor suppliers in the world. Describe what is was like to step into the new role?

Jewell: Well I think in a nutshell, I would say running a business is much easier than running a governmental agency. One of the things that struck me in my four years of public service was the irrational view that businesses and CEOs should be put on a pedestal –which is complete nonsense compared to what an effective public servant does.

Your job as a public servant is to make sure you answer to everyone’s interests, and find a common ground that is best for today and best in the future. I said to my collogues: “We’re in the forever business.” It’s hard to manage this kind of business, especially when you don’t have a forever budget. Out of the four years I served, I only had one year with a somewhat normal budget…otherwise, it was continuing resolutions the whole way through.  Between thinking about the forever business, a precarious annual budget, and serving the public’s interests …a business is much easier to run.

Q: Even though you are in “the forever business”, you still have to deal with issues that call for extraction and land-use changes to the land you are trying to protect. How do you balance this, as well as address a wide range of issues?

Jewell: All are a part of the job. It’s a challenge, but when you think about the forever business, it’s about multiple use of those resources. During Bruce Babbitt’s term of Secretary of the Interior, he created the National Conservation Lands system, which is about quantifying that conservation is one of the legitimate uses of public lands. In fact, the work here that Gretchen Daily and the Woods Institute are doing on natural capital is recognizing the value of ecosystem services on our landscapes, which is also now a part of a mandate at Bureau of Land Management.

But the job is also about oil and gas leasing, mineral leasing, and other kinds of leasing. It’s tricky. Part of it is about listening and respecting people. For example, how do you help that rancher have a viable lifestyle in a way that doesn’t decimate the landscapes? It’s about reaching that sweet spot between grazers and oil companies so that they make decisions that’s in harmony with the habitat needs of threatened species. It requires a lot of work and a lot of collaboration. You have to bring people to table to share where they are coming from, and that was a big part of what we did.

Q: One of the main issues you tackled was developing renewable energy sites at the same time you were doing habitat protection. Were there special features of that dialogue?

Jewell: In the state of California, we worked on something called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. It focused on 20 million acres of the Mojave Desert within California. It was initiated by my predecessor Ken Salazar, to maximize the potential of renewable energy plans in these vast public lands –areas that we hadn’t yet permitted projects for.  Since energy standards were racking up and putting pressure on utilities to use renewable energy, we knew there was an opportunity on federal public lands to create an expedited pathway to developing projects in the right areas.

Using new technologies and the work of wildlife biologists, we were able to create data layers to understand where the critical habitats were, where species need to migrate to, where the human disturbance was already, communities are located, and more. There was a tremendous effort to look at all these layers, and determine where the best areas were for these renewable energy developments. We, as the federal government, then told businesses that if they go to these areas, their permits would be expedited within 90 days. So that’s thoughtful regulation that preclears things for businesses and the environment.

Q: You have a dedication to listening to many perspectives across the spectrum.  How did you create this culture within an agency of 70,000 people?

Jewell: It’s hard. It’s about finding very quickly who you can trust, and shaping a team from those people. You also have to find a way to get down in the organization and talk to the people who were closest to the action –that’s the way I got my best information. When you go to where the rubber hits the road, and there’s multiple layers between your position and their position within an organizational hierarchy, those people are much more likely to tell you what on their mind and not filter their opinion based upon what they think you want to hear. It’s amazing how much perspective you get. This is important because if you know where the rubber hits the road, it gives you the questions you need to ask when you have to prioritize across many challenges.

Q: One of the unique responsibilities of the Department of the Interior is tribal relations. How did you make sure that the rights of the indigenous people in America were being recognized?

Jewell: That’s probably one of the hardest roles in the department: to stand up for tribes. Since it was founded in 1849, the Department of the Interior has evolved to be the agency tribes rely on as their advocate.  It is our job to ensure that other parts of the government are upholding their part of the bargain on trust and treaty obligations.

I did not have a lot of background in tribal work before this position, so I went to Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, for advice. He told me: ‘Sally, it’s almost as simple as this: in everything you do, don’t forget the Indians.’ It was incredibly simple, and incredibly good advice.  I still needed reminding, sometimes, to make sure I was including tribal communities at the table, and asking if there was a tribal component to projects.

With this position, I also realized I was responsible for the worst preforming education system in the United States of America. Spread across 27 states, the total amount of tribal youth enrolled in Bureau of Indian Education schools is roughly the number of children enrolled in the Seattle public schools. That’s something that was hard, but it became a passion of mine because I saw so much potential in tribal youth. While we made some progress, this wasn’t something you could fix in one term under one president –it needs to be a deep commitment. When you have these decade-long problems that you’re trying to solve, all you can do is roll-up your sleeves and get what you can done.

Q: One of the things that must be so frustrating is to see so many of things you made progress on go backwards. How do you think about where we’re headed?

Jewell: The good news, in my view, is that there are a lot of shortcuts being taken. And there are watchdogs at many levels of government, nonprofit organizations, community groups, tribes, and others that are all pushing back to ensure that there’s accountability. The earliest and most visible situations on this, was the Trump administration’s decision to reverse the creation of Bear’s Ears National Monument, and to significantly shrink the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. One of the challenges of the courts is that you don’t want the future of the country to rest in the hands of judges who may be arbitrary in their decisions, but by the same token, I’m very proud of the meticulous work we went through in the creation of Bear’s Ears. We had a public meeting with 1500 people, the involvement of five tribes, and incredible amount of research into what is in those landscapes and what needs to be protected.

There are environmental regulations that have not gone through that kind of process, and those are the ones being challenged. But take heart, some things will still stand the test of time. It’s very difficult to put regulations in place, and it’s very difficult to take them out of place. We’ve set it up in a way where these rollbacks can be challenged. 

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