It was easy to tell that Sally Jewell, who took her first trip to the Everglades Wednesday as the nation’s new Secretary of the Interior, wasn’t your typical Washington politician.
They often arrive for the obligatory tour and photo-op in preppy khakis and loafers or, to make a real roughing-it impression, in crisp jeans and shiny cowboy boots.
Jewell, 57, an accomplished mountaineer who left a $2 million a year job running the outdoors gear giant Recreational Equipment Inc. to join the Obama administration, showed up in her former company’s quick-drying wind-stop trousers and a pair of all-terrain Merrells she called “slough slog shoes.” She looked more like a scientist ready to muck about the marsh than boss of the vast bureaucracy managing much of the country’s lands.
Jewell didn’t get a chance to physically wade the Glades this time but she did get a fast immersion into the complex challenges of restoring the sprawling, struggling River of Grass. More important, she freely acknowledged that her visit – the first big trip outside the D.C. area trip since her Senate confirmation a few weeks ago – was intended to underline the administration’s continued commitment to a $12 billion-plus state-federal restoration effort, the largest and most expensive environmental project in history.
“Absolutely,’’ said Jewell, after an hour-long airboat tour of Everglades National Park with park scientists and managers. “Where I go is an important indication of the effort that is being put forth by the Department of Interior and our elected officials.’’
Her predecessor Ken Salazar, a former Democratic senator from Colorado, probably set a record for visits, logging 11 trips during his four-year tenure and helping make the Everglades a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s environmental agenda. Salazar championed boosting federal funding for restoration projects, fighting to ban imports of the invasive Burmese python and pushing to complete construction of what environmentalists and park managers hope will be the first of a series of bridges along Tamiami Trail.
“Our No. 1 conservation goal in the park is fixing the road,’’ park Superintendent Dan Kimball told Jewell.
Environmentalists have roundly praised Jewell’s appointment and hope she can continue the progress, starting with winning congressional authorization and more funding for additional Tamiami Trail bridging.
Eric Eikenberg, chief executive office of The Everglades Foundation, said he had met with Jewell during a trip to Washington last week and found her already up to speed on many key issues.
“It’s extraordinary that two weeks into the job she is already coming down here,’’ he said. “This is proof to us and the advocates of the Everglades that the administration iscontinuing to push forward.’’
Jewell’s tour included two stops and a helicopter flyover. At the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in western Palm Beach County, bordered by sprawling sugar farms and suburbs, much of the focus was on water quality. Under pressure from federal judges to protect the sensitive Glades, Gov. Rick Scott last year agreed to spend another $880 million to expand on some $1 billion worth of artificial marshes that absorb damaging farm pollution.