The emperor of the American outdoors usually wears a cowboy hat, for the lashing dust and searing sun in the domain of the Interior Department, which is one-fifth of the United States. James Watt, the most small-minded head of that agency in modern times, wore one. So did Ken Salazar, the outgoing secretary.
Don’t expect to see Sally Jewell, who is President Barack Obama’s nominee for Interior secretary, in a showy Stetson.
Running shoes, yes. Climbing helmet, of course. Cycling tights, no doubt. If confirmed, Jewell would be one of the few directors of that vast department to actually share the passions of the majority of people who use the 500 million acres of public land under Interior’s control.
It’s not just that Jewell has climbed Mount Rainier, kayaked innumerable frothy waterways, skied and snowboarded double-diamond runs. Nor that, as chief executive of the nation’s largest consumer cooperative — Recreational Equipment Inc., the retailer known as REI — she knows that Americans spend more money on outdoor equipment than they do on pharmaceuticals or gasoline.
But Jewell — a city-dweller, educated, articulate about the importance of nature in a modern life — is a prototypical citizen of the 21st-century American West, still the geography of hope, in Wallace Stegner’s timeless phrase.
“It feels so nice to get a little mud on your feet, a little mist in your face,” she said not long ago, after a winter hike near her home in Seattle.
For all the ranchers and wildcatters, the loggers and right-wing county commissioners who clamor for control of the nation’s public lands, the dominant user is an urbanite, who bikes, skis, rafts, climbs, hunts, fishes, watches birds, waits for sunsets with a camera or finds an antidote for “nature deficit disorder” in a weekend on a high plateau.
Yet this silent majority is taken for granted. Obama, following the ravaged path of George W. Bush, has made it easy for oil and gas drillers to industrialize huge swaths of land that are owned by every citizen. About 6 million acres have been leased to drillers in the last four years; a total of 44 million acres are under lease now.
Bush made oil and gas drilling his No. 1 priority for Interior’s lands. Obama has not significantly altered that course.
“We are drilling all over the place,” Obama said in defense of his policies during the presidential campaign. At the same time, less public land has been permanently protected under Obama than any of the prior four presidents.
Every time gas prices go up, some demagogue will say it’s because we aren’t sucking enough oil out of our shared setting, when in fact there is no connection between the global price of oil and annual output from government leases. But Obama has been afraid to rally the larger conservation and recreational-user coalition because he fears the wrath of the fossil-fuel crowd.
In part, this is because those who value the prairies, canyons, mountains and grasslands of Interior for something other than extraction have been largely missing from the debate. They let buffoonish politicians from rural Western areas drone on about the need to put even more public lands under control of the oil industry. They allow corporate interests who are more at home on a Saudi golf course than in a slick-rock canyon in southern Utah to speak for the West.