Official White House photo by Pete Souza
Sally Jewell Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Interior, Sally Jewell, is historic––not for who she is, but for who she is not.

She is a mountaineer; an ultra-marathon runner; the CEO of REI, the outdoor-gear giant; and a former bank executive and oil company engineer. She appears to be some kind of archetypal über-woman of the Pacific Northwest, jogging up Mount Rainier on coffee breaks.

Jewell’s résumé is as richly complicated as the heady concept of “ecosystem management,” and it sounds like she has plenty of experience in both arenas. Those interested in “ecosystems” will look toward her years with REI and the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association; those leaning toward “management” will note her careers in the petroleum and banking industries.

Another Seattleite (former Mayor Richard Ballinger) has been interior secretary before (albeit 100 years ago), and so has a woman, Gale Norton. But what sets Jewell apart is that she is not, and has never been, a politician. For many decades, the Secretary of the Interior has been the plum post of the classic Western politician: men (usually) like Donald Hodel, Cecil Andrus, Harold Ickes, Ken Salazar, Stewart Udall, Bruce Babbitt and Dirk Kempthorne. All shared a background in politics, either as an elected official or by dint of holding some position high in the apparatus of government or partisan machines.

Interior is bloody political turf, because the stakes are so high, and the money is so big. Land is wealth, and the Interior Department manages millions of publicly owned acres, from sagebrush scablands to national treasures such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. The land includes oil and gas and wildlife and rivers and ski resorts and other precious resources. When folks compete to divvy that up, they do it with sharp knives.

The mere fact that Jewell is President Obama’s candidate shows that a more mature view could be emerging about the department’s role and mission. Jewell knows there is more than one way to wrest wealth from land. Yes, there’s a place for using the land to provide food, fuel and fiber. America needs all that.

But in the modern world, other values rise like cream to the surface as well. Jewell’s billion-dollar company, REI, is part of a much larger outdoor recreation industry. America’s great public landholdings are valuable not only for crude oil, natural gas and livestock feed, but also for providing scenic getaways for weary urbanites, fishing and hunting spots for blue-collar families, streams for salmon and a host of other species, and clean water for millions of people.

Plus, our public lands are increasingly understood to provide a priceless setting for business owners and other investors. Economists are getting better at putting dollar signs on that, but it still represents a shifting mindset. The glimmering chrome-and-fir-tree temple of REI in downtown Seattle is testimony to the fact that recreation and quality-of-life dollars add up to real money.

It’s hard to trace Jewell’s record to assess how she might approach natural resource disputes in our public lands. But clues point toward a mind that understands the value of consensus and fair solutions.

Jewell’s kneejerk critics, like Utah’s Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, will immediately scent an environmentalist conspiracy in anything that smells more like pine needles than gas fumes. That kind of thing gets him re-elected in Utah, but his views don’t represent the broader American experience.

In her home state of Washington, Jewell’s reputation is that of a pragmatist, not an ideologue. She’s supported efforts like the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan, a classic example of centrist groups, representing both conservation and agriculture, getting down to brass tacks to compromise and solve serious problems. In consequence, local farmers will get the water they need for irrigation, and valuable runs of sockeye salmon will be restored.

Hard-core folks on both extremes throw rocks at solutions like the Yakima plan, which accept the need for collaborative conservation in order to get things done.

Can Jewell’s kind of professional experience survive—let alone accomplish good things—in today’s Washington? Is the fortitude that got her to the highest peak in Antarctica enough to help her endure the posturing and politics of Congress? A good guess is that Jewell’s appointment—a refreshing departure from the old politics—signals that Obama is setting the stage for a new kind of conservation legacy. And if she is confirmed, Ms. Jewell can count on one thing: She is headed for the adventure of a lifetime.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Kalispell, Mont.