But will Jewell really be the answer to all the greenies’ prayers? If the Senate confirms her — and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t, despite flailing from right-wing pundits who say the one-time petroleum engineer is too green — she will be the first Interior secretary in at least 30 years who doesn’t wear a cowboy hat. This bodes well for those who value the public lands for things other than grazing cows, logging, and mining: Jewell is, above all, a business woman, but her loyalties clearly lie with those who view the public lands as a playground, not the source of commodities like minerals or meat.
Some have raised legitimate questions about whether the interests of Jewell’s industry line up with what’s best for the land. Off-road vehicle riders love nothing better than tearing up the virgin (and extremely fragile) deserts managed by Interior. And while “human-powered” recreation nuts like myself aren’t drilling and fracking the heck out of the public domain, we burn a fair amount of the resulting fuel in order to get to our favorite recreation areas. As Jewell herself quipped at the press conference last summer, “I don’t know anyone who walks to the trailhead.”
Jewell will no doubt continue her push to get more people — particularly young people and people of color — into the outdoors. That’s good for both the outdoor business and the environmental movement, which have become alarmed of late at the old age and whiteness of their customer/membership bases. It’s also a priority for land managers, who are under increasing pressure to make public lands “pay their way.” With land management budgets in shambles, we will likely see more pressure to outsource services like campground management to private companies and to create “public-private partnerships.”
But the biggest unknown surrounding public lands conservation is Jewell’s boss-to-be, President Obama. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are sure to block any conservation measures from passing through Congress, and while Jewell can steer the department toward more eco-friendly land management, there is a limit to what she can do from inside a government juggernaut like Interior. That means that her most powerful tool for any lasting progress is to work through the president, via executive fiat.
President Clinton used his executive powers to create a pile of new national monuments at the encouragement of his Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt. So far, however, Obama has shown little appetite for such action. He has made it clear that he plans to continue the oil and gas drilling orgy that his predecessor started. Meanwhile, he has protected less public land administratively than each of the four presidents who preceded him — even George W. Bush.