Former CEO of REI to head up the Department of the Interior

Do I even know who the head of the Australian Department of the Environment is? I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that don’t think I do. So, I probably should but I wouldn’t expect many of my friends to know, nor would I expect BMA (Canberra free press) to have an article about a new appointee. The Missoula Independent this week has a one-page opinion piece about Obama’s new woman at the top of DOI. I just don’t think that departmental heads make that kind of street press in Australia. Maybe in the ‘Public Servant’ the section of the Canberra Times that my parents and in-laws read but not the local street press that advertises hair salons to hipsters.

One thing I’ve noticed around here is the high level of awareness about the ins and outs of land management in the local community. Probably a reflection of the section of the community I’ve encountered but it is also a product of how ever-present land management issues are here in the West. You just don’t get such a high percentage of the population engaged in land management in a capital city.

Anyway, back Sally Jewell, the new head of Department of Interior. DOI is ‘the Department of Everything Else’, including most of the land management departments. It is charge of energy policy, regulating energy development on federal lands, permanent preservation of federal land, endangered species, mining and mineral exploration.

Jewell isn’t the first woman, so while the fact that she is a she is interesting, the most interesting thing about Sally Jewell is her background. This job usual goes to a political actor from somewhere in the West, this time Obama has backed a woman with a business background. Described by the president of the Natural Resources Defence Council as having the “mind of an engineer, heart of environmentalist and the know-how of a businesswoman.” Jewell started as engineer with Mobil, then worked in financial management before becoming the CEO of REI. Under Jewell’s leadership REI has grown to be one of the largest and most successful of the emerging green businesses in the US.

Jewell’s background in energy and outdoor recreation speaks volumes to the current focus dominating the management of public land: preservation for the enjoyment of all or exploitation for their finite mineral resources. With those on the mining side hoping that her roots in petroleum engineering will favour their endeavours and the outdoor rec crowd seeing her through a similar ‘eye of the beholder’ lens: “this time the pick is one of us.”

While you could read into Obama’s mentioning of climate change in the recent state of the union and inauguration to hope that maybe something will be done, with a continued focus on expanding energy production I’m not holding my breath.

What I find interesting about the media reporting of Jewell’s credentials is that her experience in green business makes her a conservationist. She is a self-proclaimed supporter of environmental sustainability as long as it is economically viable. Whether Obama means to do this or not, the discussion sparked around Jewell is pointing towards the reframing of environmentalism not having to cost jobs. Jewell herself apparently introduced Obama at a conference on ‘America’s Great Outdoors’ (an Obama initiative that draws explicit links between conservation and recreation) pointing to the number of jobs that the outdoor industry provides.

It just bothers me a little that conservation is now equated with climate change policy, business and outdoor recreation. This narrow frame misses so much, but then maybe this is what it takes to

‘engage the mainstream’

I don’t normally bother with the ‘is green growth an oxymoron’ debates – ofcourse it is, but do we have any other choice? Just look at how successful the Limits to Growth crowd were… The debate is boring, maybe we need to be a little more realistic and get on with working within the current political climate? I guess maybe a company like REI is doing that. It is America’s 27th largest co-op, it supports local conservation initiatives and has made progress towards reducing their footprint. But still… it is a big company that sells stuff. Our continually accumulation of stuff is part of the problem.

So we maybe we can’t have it all? We are going to have to compromise on the hardline agenda. But environmentalists have traditionally been bad at compromise.

With her history in both camps and leadership of a co-operative maybe Sally Jewell is exactly the person to guide DOI through this new era of collaborative conservation. Or maybe she is going to be viewed by both sides as a sell out. I don’t envy her, but I look forward to seeing what comes of her leadership.