Watching the members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources question Sally Jewell, who is President Obama's nominee for Secretary of the Interior, brought to mind John McPhee's classic Encounters with the Archdruid. To write that book, McPhee spent a year with David Brower (the "archdruid" of the title), who was the Sierra Club's first executive director. Brower's "encounters" were with, respectively, a mineral engineer, a real estate developer, and a dam builder. In the book, Brower stood for what in 1969 was still a somewhat radical idea: That wild places have value beyond whatever natural resources we can extract from them.
One thing that makes Sally Jewell such an interesting choice for Secretary of the Interior is that, if McPhee were writing his book today, she could have played both roles. On the one hand, she's a former petroleum engineer who worked on the Trans-Alaska pipeline and has actually fracked an oil well. Yet at the same time, she's a lifelong outdoor enthusiast, is the CEO of outdoor recreation retail giant REI (where she's pushed sustainability initiatives while boosting profits), and serves on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association. I suspect that, if confirmed, she will be the first Interior Secretary whose resume includes summiting the highest peak (16,077 feet) in Antarctica. David Brower, an expert mountaineer, would have appreciated that!
Jewell's mountaineering experience in Antarctica was probably good preparation for the reception she received from some Republican members of the Senate committee, who greeted her with everything from wariness to hostility, as if she must surely be a tree hugger disguised behind a petroleum engineer's pocket protector. Would she, they asked repeatedly, have the audacity to stand in the way of drilling and mining public lands? Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (a Democrat) even tried (unsuccessfully) to trick her into supporting mountaintop-removal coal mining. Through it all, Jewell stuck to the Obama administration's ill-conceived "all of the above" party line on energy, albeit with nods toward "responsible" development of energy resources on our public lands and the importance of clean energy.
Clearly, the struggle between those who want unfettered exploitation of natural resources and those who believe we should protect irreplaceable wild places is as relevant now as it was in Brower's day. But the values articulated by Brower are no longer quite so radical. In fact, they're shared by a strong majority of Americans, especially in the West, where so many of our public lands are found. This year's "Conservation in the West Poll," which is sponsored annually by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, found more than three-quarters of Western voters believe environmentally sensitive public lands should have at least some permanent protection from drilling. They also strongly support prioritizing renewable energy on public lands over mining and drilling dirty fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas. Nearly two-thirds labeled themselves as "conservationists," and that includes not just Democrats and
independents, but a majority of Republicans.
Incidentally, 83 percent of Western voters agreed that "children not spending enough time in the outdoors" is a "serious problem" -- a belief that Jewell also strongly expressed in her statement to the Senate committee last week. I couldn't agree more.
From everything I've seen, Sally Jewell has the potential to be a great Secretary of the Interior. Based on the Obama's administration's track record of protecting public lands thus far, though, I have to hope this expert kayaker doesn't find herself paddling into the wind.
Unfortunately, this administration has been too slow to act on making sure that frackers, drillers, and miners don't ruin our public lands. Some of the areas facing threats -- from the greater Grand Canyon to the San Juan Islands to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- could easily be protected by President Obama as national monuments. As the "Conservation in the West" polling data shows, people in the West understand the value of protecting these special places. A national monument generates economic and recreational value for nearby communities, and it keeps doing so in perpetuity. You can't say that for oil fields or uranium mines. In fact, the opposite is true.
"All of the above" energy malarky notwithstanding, I suspect that Sally Jewell understands the true value of public lands better than most folks who've held the job for which she's been nominated. If she does become Secretary of the Interior, let's hope she carries that infectious enthusiasm for the great outdoors into her new role, and spreads it to her boss.