Catalyst Spring 2018

Parks and Regulations: Sally Jewell Reflects on Her Service

Interview with the former secretary of the interior

Sally Jewell served as secretary of the interior from 2013 to 2017, during which time she was known for her policies aimed at the conservation of natural resources and the expansion of national parks. She also initiated a landmark renewable energy and conservation plan for 10 million acres of desert in California. Before heading the Department of the Interior—her first foray into public service—Jewell was CEO of the sporting/outdoor goods retailer REI.
Photo: Rebecca Hale/National Geographic

What are you most proud of when you look back at your tenure as head of the Department of the Interior?

Sally Jewell: I’d say that I’m most proud of the people I worked with, and the incredible work they did. As a private-sector person coming into government, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was blown away by the talent of the researchers, the committed public servants, those who are serving the public on a day-to-day basis, those who were upholding our trust with the American public. And I’m proud to have had their backs as they took risks to move our nation forward.

Do any specific accomplishments stand out to you as game changers?

Sally Jewell: We were able to leverage today’s technology to make smarter decisions about our public lands and waters that I think will pay dividends for generations to come. With incredible mapping capabilities, with satellite data, with the benefit of hindsight from mistakes made in the past . . . we can now look at the landscape across public lands, private lands, state lands and understand more about what’s at stake and why it is important to us.

Because of advances in science, we now know the areas that are important to set aside for conservation and the areas that are less important. We know the areas with great solar energy potential, or geothermal or wind energy. We know the areas that are important for endangered species such as the desert tortoise. This is information that can help us leave our environment in better condition for our children, grandchildren, and generations to follow. By applying the science, we can make smarter decisions.

Things are changing fast in the Department of the Interior. What changes have been most troubling to you since the Trump administration appointed Ryan Zinke to head the department?

Sally Jewell: What’s extremely frustrating to me about the Trump administration, Secretary Zinke, and what’s happening in the Department of the Interior is that they’re retreating from science. I don’t see a proactive strategy for what they want to do. I see only a proactive strategy for undoing what we did.

When thoughtful regulations are done right, they account for a lot of different points of view. They strike a balance between economic success and appropriate environmental protections, along with protections for people and resources. When you sit across the table from businesses, and help them understand how their activities can adversely impact things, or where they can be a constructive partner and build their brand and their reputation, you end up with scenarios where people work together for a common good. It takes years and years.

This administration has to go through the same process of undoing regulations that we had to go through to create them, and it’s not going to be fast. I take some comfort in knowing that.

Secretary Zinke has said he’s being judged by how many regulations he can get rid of. Which regulations are you most concerned about this administration rolling back?

Sally Jewell: If you look at methane venting and flaring rules [Editor’s note: the Bureau of Land Management under Zinke has proposed to undo limitations on the burning of methane on federal and tribal lands], that is American taxpayer assets going up in smoke—or going up in emissions that are hugely harmful. Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more powerful in the short run compared to carbon dioxide. But there’s no royalty being paid on that to the American people. And why would this administration want to just allow the assets of American people to go up in smoke, or to go up into the atmosphere? And yet that is what they are doing.

Likewise, they’ve rolled back regulations on the federal coal program. We had required that when you’re selling coal and you’re paying a royalty to the federal government and state governments, half of it goes to the states in that case. We wanted to make sure the royalties are paid on what you’re actually receiving from the coal. What coal companies are doing now is, they’re selling to a related company for, say, a dollar a ton, and then that company has sold it on to an exporter for, say, $10 a ton. They pay a royalty on the dollar and not the $10. That is a regulation the Trump administration has rolled back that just screws the American taxpayer. And the only rationale I can see for that is that they are being highly influenced by the coal industry.

What is keeping you hopeful as you see progress being stalled on climate change and environmental protections?

Sally Jewell: I’ve spoken with a handful of people, especially young people, who joined federal government service because of the opportunity that they have—beyond anything they could do in the private sector—to make a difference. And they have said to me, "Don’t worry, Sally. I know we are in a different period now than we were a year ago, but I want to reassure you, I’m in this for the long game because I care about our country. I care about future generations. I care about climate change. I care about what we’re leaving behind, and I am committed to doing this even if it’s painful in the short run."

It’s frustrating, but we live in a more transparent country than some, and I think what will happen is a backlash from the public that says: this is not okay.

I also have to say how much I appreciate the Union of Concerned Scientists for standing up for the critically important work that is being done in this country and around the world—helping all of us understand what’s at stake with climate change, for future generations, for communities that may not have the voice that they should, and of course for the critters that have no vote or voice anywhere.

To your supporters out there: keep up your support, keep up your engagement, keep teaching children science, and keep advocating for science at a local level. It makes an enormous difference.