03/14/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

Sally Jewell: From REI to DOI?

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

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

"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.

In the meantime, you can ask President Obama to create more national monuments.