Will Obama Protect Public Land, or Keep Leasing It Out?

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Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Goodbye, cowboy boots. Hello, hiking boots. That’s the symbolism at least, with President Barack Obama’s nomination of Sally Jewell, the president and chief executive officer of Recreational Equipment Inc., to become U.S. interior secretary.

This is more than the latest sign that the American West is moving past the resource battles of the last century. It also acknowledges what politicians have known for a while: The outdoor-sports industry commands a seat at the adults’ table with loggers, miners and ranchers in deciding how to use public lands.

Jewell has been a leading voice of the outdoor industry that created $646 billion in U.S. sales and services in 2011 and 6.1 million jobs. Many of these jobs are in a West dominated by more than 500 million acres of national parks, federal rangeland and wildlife refuges, over which Jewell will become landlord if confirmed.

She will also be responsible for 68 percent of the nation’s oil and gas reserves and millions of acres of federal mining lands. Jewell, a University of Washington engineering graduate, began her career with Mobil Corp., working in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Wyoming, and later worked for Rainier Bank overseeing petroleum land investments. That pedigree has already brought praise from the oil and gas industry.

Outdoor Industry

Yet her leadership in making the outdoor industry a force for conservation in Washington and Western state capitals has made environmentalists consider her one of their own. She is credited with leading REI, an outdoor retailer with almost $2 billion in revenue, back to profitability.

Most U.S. interior secretaries have been career politicians or operatives elevated from a Western governor’s seat, Congress or a state government. They got the job because the traditional resource industries that dominated the Western economy for most of the 20th century either supported them or could tolerate them.

Obama’s first-term secretary, Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator who wears a cowboy hat and boots, came from the ranching community, one of the old West’s traditional industries, along with mining and logging. This experience helped as he placated Western governors who were angry about the return of the wolf and about proposals to restrict activities on millions of acres of sagebrush habitat in an effort to keep sage grouse off the federal endangered-species list.

Jewell is more likely to be found in a kayak than on a horse. During her introduction by Obama, she said Salazar’s boots would be hard to fill. “But I think I might get lost in your hat,” she said.

Today, across much of the West, loggers and tree huggers are sitting down together to restore the forests they once fought over. In places such as the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, they are negotiating how to promote logging and road obliteration to improve wildlife habitat and create needed jobs in rural communities. The timber harvest has risen to 1990s levels.

These collaborative efforts clash with those of Republican-controlled legislatures in Arizona, Idaho and Utah to push legislation to demand the federal government turn over federal lands to states. This idea is a nonstarter for the wide majority of Westerners in both parties, and strengthens the hand of Obama and Jewell.

Jewell will face the same problems that Westerners from both parties face. An interior secretary only gets a national audience when there’s a big oil spill or giant forest fire. MSNBC interrupted its program yesterday to show Obama’s announcement of Jewell’s nomination. Then it went back to a story about gay membership in the Boy Scouts.

Conservation Legacy

Ultimately, Jewell and Obama will be judged by the conservation legacy they leave, not by how many mining leases they grant. In a time of climate change, when scientists say saving every species is no longer a realistic goal and no wilderness is really pristine anymore, it is more complex.

Obama’s conservation constituency will look at the numbers. This week, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt urged Obama to protect as much federal land as it is leasing annually for oil and gas. During Obama’s first term, 6 million acres were leased compared with the 2.6 million acres that were protected.

Babbitt called for generous use of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president the power to designate national monuments. With several proposals planned around the West, how soon Jewell acts will tell much about whether she is a break from the past in policy as well as style.

(Rocky Barker is the author of “Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America,” published by Island Press. He is also the environment and energy reporter for the Idaho Statesman. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Rocky Barker at rbarker@rockybarker.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.