Updated Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 05:53 AM
President Obama on Wednesday will nominate Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) chief executive Sally Jewell to head the Interior Department, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified because the public announcement has not yet been made.
Jewell, a University of Washington Regent, began her career as an engineer for Mobil Oil and worked as a commercial banker before becoming president and CEO of the nearly $2 billion outdoors equipment company headquartered in Kent. She represents an unconventional choice for a post usually reserved for career politicians from the West.
But while she boasts less public policy experience than other candidates who had been under consideration, Jewell, who will have to be confirmed by the Senate, has earned national recognition for her management skills and support for outdoor recreation and habitat conservation.
In 2011 Jewell introduced Obama at the White House conference on "America's Great Outdoor Initiative," noting that the $289 billion outdoor-recreation industry supports 6.5 million jobs.
Jewell has lived in the Seattle area most of her life. She graduated in 1973 from Renton High School, earned a mechanical-engineering degree from the University of Washington and, one week later, married Warren Jewell, a fellow engineer.
Jewell, who is being nominated to succeed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, would take over at a time when many conservationists are pressing Obama to take bolder action on land conservation. Salazar devoted much of his tenure to both promoting renewable energy on public land and managing the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
On Tuesday former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt gave a speech at the National Press Club calling on the president to set aside one acre permanently for conservation for every acre he leases for oil and gas development.
"It's that simple: one to one," Babbitt said. "So far, under President Obama, industry has been winning the race as it obtains more and more land for oil and gas. Over the past four years, the industry has leased more than 6 million acres, compared with only 2.6 million acres permanently protected. In the Obama era, land conservation is again falling behind."
Facing congressional opposition and budget constraints during Obama's first term, Salazar emphasized the importance of enlisting private sector, state and local support to protect major landscapes through America's Great Outdoors Initiative. Jewell emerged as a strong advocate of the policy, and is likely to continue such efforts.
While public lands protection has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, this issue has become increasingly polarized, and the 112th Congress was the first one since 1966 to fail to designate a single piece of wilderness. Environmentalists such as Babbitt have urged Obama to use the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the executive authority to set aside land as national monuments, to protect ecologically valuable areas in the West.
Jewell has pushed for land conservation both in Washington state as well as nationally. She is a founding board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, which focuses on a stretch of land spanning from Puget Sound across the Cascades, and helped lay out a plan for the National Park Service as a commissioner on the "National Parks Second Century Commission."
In her message to REI members on the co-op's website, she wrote, "Through direct engagement in service projects on public lands, and grants that support organizations involved in connecting people to nature and stewardship, your co-op facilitated nearly three million hours of volunteer service in parks, recreation areas and natural spaces across the country. With the board's support, the co-op dedicates 3% of our annual operating profits to these activities. In addition, we remain committed to enhancing the sustainability of our business, from understanding and reducing the environmental impact of products we manufacture, to reducing our energy consumption through projects such as the use of solar energy to power some of our stores."
Wyss Foundation president Molly McUsic, whose group focuses on land conservation, wrote in an e-mail that Jewell "understands the full economic potential of America's resources."
"She knows the oil and gas business from having worked at Mobil and in the banking industry, but also understands the growing economic potential of America's $646 billion outdoor recreation industry," McUsic added. "She knows that to grow the economy, development of energy resources must be on equal ground with the protection of places that drive tourism, travel, and recreation."
While Jewell is more closely identified with the Democratic Party than the Republicans, she made a high-profile appearance with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) back in 2008 when he was running for president. McCain spoke with Jewell and others at an environmental policy roundtable outside of Seattle, during which the senator argued that he had stronger environmental credentials than either Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton, who were both vying for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time.
Other contenders for the Cabinet position in recent weeks included former Washington governor Christine Gregoire (D), Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
Information from Seattle Times archives was used in this report.
CLIFF DESPEAUX / THE SEATTLE TIMES
REI's recession strategy in 2009, said Chief Executive Sally Jewell, was to "find things that would excite people and get them into the outdoors."
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Sally Jewell in 2005, when she took over as chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc.