Down to Earth With: Sally Jewell

by Sara E. Pratt
Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Most people who find their way into public office start locally, perhaps by running for a seat on the school board or city council. Sally Jewell’s first foray into public service came at the behest of President Obama, who last year nominated her as the 51st Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) — the first Secretary in more than a decade with a background in geoscience.

Last April, Jewell took the helm at Interior, which employs more than 70,000 people in nine bureaus including Indian Affairs, Land Management, Reclamation, and Ocean Energy Management, as well as the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in mechanical engineering, Jewell began her career as a petroleum engineer with Mobil Oil Corp., working first in the oilfields of Oklahoma and then in the exploration and production office in Denver, Colo. She later moved into commercial banking as an energy and natural resources analyst and then, in 2000, joined Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) as chief operating officer. In 2005, she was named president and chief executive officer of REI.

Jewell, who was born in the U.K. and moved to Washington State at the age of 4, is also an avid outdoorswoman who has climbed Mount Rainier seven times, as well as Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica.

She recently spoke to EARTH associate editor Sara E. Pratt about transitioning from the private to the public sector; the challenges inherent in leading an agency charged with both conserving and developing the nation’s natural resources; and inspiring the next generation of geoscientists.

SEP: Growing up, how did you become interested in science and engineering?

SJ: I grew up with parents who allowed us to explore anything that was of interest to us. My father used to make his own oscilloscopes and we would sit in the basement and solder and build oscilloscopes with him. We also made our own thermometers by blowing glass, filling them with red liquid and calibrating them to the temperature outside. My parents also helped found an organization through which kids could go out into nature with graduate students for a week. On those trips, I learned about botany, entomology, meteorology, marine biology, mapping and topography. One of my favorite places was the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, where I learned about atomic energy from Dixy Lee Ray, who later became the governor of the state of Washington. [Ray, the first director of the science center, was later named chair of the Atomic Energy Commission.] I had all kinds of role models growing up, both male and female — the most important of which was my father — who provided the opportunities, the doors for us to walk through as kids.

SEP: Do you think that getting outside and into nature influenced you to start your career in the geosciences?

SJ: Well, my degree is in mechanical engineering, so it’s not exactly geosciences. I wish I’d had more geology because I did go into petroleum engineering. But I learned a lot from the geologists and geophysicists that I worked with. I picked it up by osmosis as opposed to actual training. But I would say that the outdoors has been an enormously valuable part of my life. I believe strongly that the best classrooms are the ones with no walls. We learn by doing. It sticks with children much more when they learn by doing as opposed to just learning from a book. And one of the exciting things about this job is that we manage large landscapes and we’ve got a great opportunity to welcome the next generation into them. That is certainly a priority of mine.

SEP: How did your experience in the petroleum industry prepare you for your current role in overseeing the country’s oil and gas resource development?

SJ:  I worked in the oilfields, as well as in planning and budgeting from an engineering standpoint, which gave me a fundamental understanding of the industry, including the cost of doing business as well as the potential environmental impacts and risks. I worked mostly in mature oilfields with advanced-stage waterfloods, but we were also looking at tertiary recovery. We were experimenting with high-pressure fracking in natural gas formations. The technology has changed since I was in the industry, but the basics are still the same. Now, as a regulator and permitter, having that baseline understanding has been very helpful, for example, in evaluating fracking regulations and in pursuing safe and responsible drilling offshore or in the Arctic.

SEP: What do you see as the role of geoscience research at Interior, not just at USGS, but departmentwide, and what are the key issues that Interior addresses in which you see geoscience taking a lead role?

SJ:  When Senator Maria Cantwell [D-Wash.], whom I have known for some time back in the state of Washington, introduced me at my confirmation hearing, she said that, if confirmed, science would be my north star. And I very much feel that way. Science has a critical place at the table. Science is imperfect, but it continues to evolve and we continue to learn and change our knowledge. If we had known 50 years ago what we know now, we might have had a different climate change scenario than what we’re facing. But we’ve got to take what we know as we know it and apply it to the decisions that we make. That is fundamental to every decision that I make here.

In the Department of the Interior, one of the things that we are doing right now is developing a deeper understanding of our natural resources so that we can make smart decisions about our landscapes. One example is the blending of Landsat 8 data with GIS mapping capabilities, which gives us a baseline map of the scientific data together with the interests of people on the ground, like property ownership, Native American tribal knowledge and which areas should be protected and which can be developed. All of a sudden, you are deconflicting landscapes and providing certainty to industry, environmentalists and tribal groups. All of that is sitting on the shoulders of the geological and geophysical and other scientific information that we have gathered through the tools available to us, with Landsat and the geospatial database being fundamentally at the core.

SEP: The Department of the Interior has a wide range of responsibilities regarding federal lands, which often lead to complex management situations involving competing mandates from different agencies and bureaus. In light of that, what’s your broad approach to the management of federal lands and the national parks going forward, or do such decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis?

SJ: When you think about it, all politics are local. There are local issues that have tremendous passion and interest on the ground that you have to take into account. But there are also landscape-level issues that help you make the decisions with which you are faced. My job is full of conflicts. There is almost no decision that I make here that doesn’t seem to end up with a “Something vs. Jewell” lawsuit, which is something I’m not used to. The reality is, [science gives us] the opportunity to collect a common set of facts from which to work, and that is critical to making the very difficult decisions that come before us.

For example, scientific data give us the understanding to assess drought risk and what’s likely to happen on our landscapes as a result. You might have one group that is concerned about stream flows for ecological habitat and you may have other interests that are relying on that water for their livelihoods, whether it’s ranching or farming or even oil and gas development. We can work with the science to make smart decisions that take the local interests into account but also bring science to bear. So instead of getting into a fight, everyone understands what the numbers look like and they can try to work together to reach the desired ecological as well as economic outcomes.

SEP:  What challenges have you faced in transitioning from the private sector to the public sector, and what are some of the skills you brought from your prior experience that have strengthened your role as Secretary?

SJ: Let me start with the differences. In the private sector, you are rewarded for taking risks. If you are trying to innovate, even if you fail, people will generally applaud you for it. In the public sector, there are all kinds of penalties for taking risks. If you spend money researching something that turns out not to work, for example, in trying to develop sources of renewable energy, after a while, people say you are wasting taxpayer money.

Nevertheless, I see risks being taken and thoughtful decisions being made by enlightened people all across government. I want to make sure that what I bring from the private sector is the reassurance that I have their back and that they won’t be thrown under the bus because they tried something that didn’t work. I think the American people expect us to experiment and take risks and lead the world on things like solutions to sustainable sources of energy that reduce our carbon pollution and sustainable ways of managing our impact on this planet. But it’s very hard to do that without taking risks.

The other difference is that, in this position, I am now in the “forever business” — protecting the cultural and natural and historic resources of this country and making scientific decisions that might impact the future of the planet. However, recently, we have had to do that on [short-term] continuing resolutions. So there is a significant disconnect between how the budget works in the federal government and the [long-term] expectations of what we’re managing.

I also think there hasn’t been a lot of appreciation recently for the work that people in the public sector do, day in and day out, that serves the American people so well. One of the things I did at REI was to recognize that all employees want to make a difference and a positive contribution. I hope that by recognizing and highlighting those contributions [at DOI] I will help put some of the pride back into the employee workforce here, because it’s been pretty downtrodden. From the budget comments to the rhetoric in the media about waste, fraud and abuse — it can wear you down. If you are a USGS scientist trying to attract the best graduate students to your work, and you now face competition from universities because of the uncertainty in your budget — that is difficult. One of the things I can do is shine a spotlight on the work of these great scientists within the Department of the Interior and try to create an inspirational environment for young people so they reconsider their career choices and come join us.

SEP: One new program you are developing is the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, a public-private partnership with the goal of getting more than a million young people and veterans out working in the national parks and on federal lands. Why is that important?

SJ: First, we have a lot of deferred maintenance and we need people to roll up their sleeves and help us take care of these public lands. Whether it’s removing invasive species or brush that could fuel wildland fires, or building a trail, or renovating historic structures — there’s no lack of work to be done. There is also no shortage of young people who want to get to work on public lands — either with a minor stipend or as a volunteer — and I want to leverage that excitement and energy to put these young people to work. So, I have set a goal of having 1 million people annually doing service on public lands within the next three years. We have more than 300,000 people right now, so we’re well on our way, but I want to triple that over the next three years. I think this can be a modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

We also have a great opportunity for young people to work alongside earth scientists — for example, using things like geotags, which can be done with cellphones. We can leverage technology to give young people a better understanding of their public lands and also give us scientific data. So, it’s not just about putting youth to work on trail crews, but putting youth to work as citizen scientists to help gather the data we need to help us make really smart choices about our landscapes.

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