Letters From the West

Interior’s Jewell knows elk scat when she sees it in Tetons and D.C.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell flew with smokejumpers during a visit to Boise in May.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell flew with smokejumpers during a visit to Boise in May.

A Salt Lake Tribune reporter shoved a smartphone in the face of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to show her a picture of animal scat on a trail in Grand Teton National Park.

“Is this bear poop?” the reporter asked.

He told Jewell that he thought it was. And after seeing all the grizzly bear warning signs, he’d turned around and walked out.

Jewell could tell the scat came from an elk, moose or large deer. “No, you could have kept on your hike,” said Jewell.

The former CEO of REI and the avid hiker, climber and paddler recounted that tale in her first major press conference last week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The story showed she is well-versed in the creatures that roam the 500 million acres she manages.

An earlier interior secretary once told another story involving animal droppings — without even opening his mouth.

Manuel Lujan, who served under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, was floating the South Fork of the Snake River in eastern Idaho when he stopped at a campground where children were playing and campers were cooking.

Lujan stepped out of the boat and right into fresh cowpie. His look of disgust told the whole story about how he felt federal agencies were managing multiple-use.

In her first six months in office, Jewell has been criticized for not hitting the ground running, for not having an independent plan of action for her tenure.

Joel Connelly, a wise old columnist for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, wrote a column in August that asked if Jewell was “locked in the cabinet” by the Obama administration.

He quoted former interior secretaries Cecil Andrus and Bruce Babbitt, who urged Jewell to get into the mix of problem-solving.

“She has to quit playing to the PR trips and do a few substantive actions that will put her in control, and not the staff that now seems to be running things,” Andrus told Connelly.

But Jewell is not a politician, as ex-governors Andrus (Idaho) and Babbitt (Arizona) were. She has acted instead like the business executives I have worked for and covered.

Business executives come in observing and getting a feel for the new landscape, before putting new ways of doing things in place. And Jewell said the landscape in Washington is very different than what she saw in business.

For one, her team still hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate. What business could thrive if the board of directors didn’t give the executives the people they need in a timely manner?

Then there was the sequester, which forced an across-the-board cut of 5 percent without the flexibility to move funds around. Again, Jewell asked, is this the way any business would operate?

How about the government shutdown? She and her people had to close the very public lands they want to get Americans to visit.

Jewell and Andrus have talked since Connelly reported Andrus’ comments. Neither would tell me what was said.

But Jewell’s approach to national monuments — the same as predecessor Ken Salazar — probably won’t make Andrus happy. She told Congress to pass the dozens of wilderness and land-protection bills that have backed up since 2010 or expect that President Obama will use the Antiquities Act to designate monuments himself.

Andrus has said Obama should designate the Boulder-White Clouds and not wait for Congress. Republican Rep. Mike Simpson has worked for more than a decade to get more than 300,000 acres of the area protected as wilderness, only to have both Republicans and Democrats stop it.

In her efforts to encourage local collaboration, Jewell, perhaps unwittingly, gives opponents to Simpson — including motorized recreation groups and big-wilderness advocate and Gershwin Prize-winning singer-songwriter Carole King — motivation to blow up the issue.

“We won’t be focusing our energy where there is a whole lot of conflict,” Jewell said.

Jewell has other priorities, too. She is seeking full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which taps royalties from offshore drilling for conservation projects, such as those from Yellowstone to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, proposed by a widely supported group called the High Divide Collaborative.

She also wants her agency, which oversees offshore leasing, to lead on climate change action and embrace more green energy projects. The former petroleum engineer also seeks a balanced approach toward U.S. energy independence.

“You can’t just switch off a major part of our energy and expect the economy to thrive,” Jewell said. “You have to do it in a thoughtful way over a long period of time and I think we’re striking the right balance.”

Ultimately, Jewell’s success will come from her skill at identifying the scat that comes out of Congress. She seems to get that.

Jewell spoke of congressmen who squeeze her national parks budget and call for a halt to all new land acquisitions — while asking for parks in their districts.

“The real test of whether you support conservation is not what you say in a press conference … but whether you fight for it in a budget conference,” she said.

Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/11/02/2848773/jewell-knows-elk-scat-in-tetons.html#storylink=cpy

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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