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Sally Jewell at the National Solar Thermal Test Facility in New Mexico, January 2015.

Image: Randy Montoya

Sally Jewell, Seattle raised and a former CEO of REI, was named the 51st Secretary of the Interior on April 12, 2013; since then she’s overseen most of the federal land in the nation, including Indian reservations. She left office on January 19, but we caught her in her last month on the job to ask about the future—for both herself and the country. 

What has been your most notable work at the Department of the Interior?

It’s been the honor of a lifetime to work for President Obama. He has been an incredible supporter of our work here at Interior and it’s a big job. It’s really given me a chance to do stuff that I was hoping to do, like begin to take on the very real issues of climate change. And also to connect to more youth with the nature and the outdoors, which has been a real priority of mine for years. It’s been a great ride and given a really wonderful opportunity to think long-term.

Climate change is long-term. What moves to you think have had the most impact?

One is something that was started by my predecessor Ken Salazar: really looking at unlocking the potential for renewable energy on public land. We just released the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in the California desert, which maps out 10 million acres of public land.  We just had the most successful wind energy lease sale off the Atlantic coast of New York, generating something like $42 million in high bids, which is actually significantly more than the lease sale we just had for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a different future.

That’s on the renewable energy side but we’ve also really helped our public land managers to adapt to what’s already happening on the ground. You cannot go out to our public lands and resources and not realize that climate change is very real. And it’s impacting the work that we do on a daily basis, from the increasing wildfires in Washington state to the droughts we’ve had in California and the Colorado River, to the spread of invasive species, to really devastating situations happening right now in the Artic. 

After the work you’ve done on renewable energy, do you think that there will be a swing back into the fossil fuel reliance in the next administration?

You know, fossil fuels have been and will remain an important part of our economy. We certainly have continued to support their responsible development, but alternative energy sources are becoming competitive with fossil fuels from an economic standpoint and you’re not going to put that genie back in the bottle.

We’ve had tremendous support from states that have made a commitment to increasing the supply of electricity they receive from renewable energy sources. California, I think, leads the way with a goal of 50 percent of renewables by 2030—and it’s a big state. And you’ve got quite low oil prices and quite low natural gas prices; that’s doing two things. One is it is making it less economic to do some of the more marginal oil and gas developments. Also, in the case of natural gas, it’s making that a much more affordable fuel—and frankly it’s less carbon-intensive, from a climate change standpoint, than coal.

It’s very easy for people to suggest regulation and preferences, or choosing winners and losers, but actually it’s fundamental economics that drives it. My hope is that this next administration is only going to make smart science-based decisions that will support what the industry wants to do but also protect our environment. It’s good for business, it’s common sense, and it’s good for states. 

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When you step out of the office in January, what are you going to keep your eye on?

I’ll be looking closely at a couple of things…. The Department of the Interior oversees the Bureau of Indian Education and I think it’s probably fair to say that we have not served native children well, ever. Going back over the history, from the boarding schools to today, we have schools that struggle to give these children the opportunities they need while also honoring their culture and heritage and giving them pride in who they are.

I’ve got a sailboat that collects green slime at Elliott Bay Marina. I’ll scrape it off when I’m back and have someone clean the barnacles off, then we’ll be doing some adventuring in the Inside Passage. I’m looking forward to skiing and hiking and reconnecting with friends.

And will I go back into business? You know, it’s amazing the kind of impact you can have at a job like this. I feel like I had an impact at REI and I had an impact in banking, but nothing that compares to the difference that you can make in the public sector. So that’s also going to weigh on my mind. 

How has your view of the Pacific Northwest changed over the past few years?

I would say I have a greater appreciation for what we have in Seattle and in the Pacific Northwest than I did when I left. I miss the weather, believe it or not.

I am coming back to a city four years later that has way worse traffic than when I left. And I come back to Seattle with a much deeper understanding of the importance of our democracy and the importance of people speaking up. When I was working at REI, I was making trips to Washington DC. I called on members of congress but I always wondered whether it was really doing any good. There’s a phrase that I learned—if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. I can tell you now, from having been there, that is absolutely accurate. If you don’t speak up you may pay a significant price, because the things you really care deeply about were not heard by elected officials.

Some environmentalists here in Seattle are unsure how to make a difference now. Is simply speaking up the most important thing?

I think their voices matter but I’d also say building relationships and listening to people that have a different point of view is really important. Some of the strongest relationships that I have made have been for example with western governors, most of whom are Republican. I was responsible for a larger amount of the land within a lot of these states than the governors are themselves. For example, Nevada is 87 percent public lands. I think Utah is about 50 percent. And we have spent a lot of time together puzzling over the right balance of conservation.

You can make assumptions where a person is, based on their politics, but if you sit down around a table with them and you talk about your common interests, I think you’ll find that you have more in common than differences. There’s a way to achieve both of your objectives in you just listen to each other. I think that’s going to be very important in this next administration. Not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  

But how do you make that connection when you’re dealing with something as basic as belief in climate change science? Can we still able to meet over the table?

Yes, because you cannot get out on these landscapes and not see it. I think rather than try to change someone’s mind about what caused the climate change, maybe a good place to start is the reality that we see. The changes in the landscape, even over the course of our lifetime—which is less than the blink of an eye in geologic time.

You can talk about things that people can relate to, like the reduction in the snowpack, and the need for water storage if we’re going to continue to have water at a time of drought. You can do a lot of good for the climate without sort of forcing someone to say climate change is manmade.

So a battle mindset might not be the most productive way to make a difference?

Yeah, I think so. Going in with an open mind, listening to people, has served me very well. It served me well in this job. There’s a tendency for people to want absolutes, but the world isn’t operated in absolutes. It’s not black or white. It very much is grey. 

Do you have a relationship with [Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior] Congressman Zinke?

I have worked with him and I have spoken with him. I’m going to do everything I can to have a smooth transition for him in this role, assuming he’s confirmed by the Senate, which is the first step.

We’ve commiserated over the amount of paperwork that he is filling out right now as he goes through the very lengthy vetting process. He’s just been in congress for a couple of years, but we have been on the podium together talking about the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which takes a small amount of oil and gas revenues from offshore development and puts them into land acquisitions of everything from city parks to forest land and national parks.

He’s from the state of Montana, so he understands some of the issues of the West and I think enjoys the outdoors himself. 

Might it be hard to see your work reversed or ended in future administrations?

You know, sitting in these chairs in these offices in Washington DC and being a part of our democracy, our country has a way of transcending any kind of pre-determined beliefs or thoughts you had when you came in here. And I believe that’s going to happen to the new administration as it takes over.

You realize what you have, how important it is, how many lives are affected by the decisions you make and how you really do have the potential to think not just now but forever. And for anyone that sits in this chair, I think that that sense will come upon them. It just has a way of leveling out any ideologies.

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