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.
The focus in the park was water quantity. During a stop along the Shark River Slough, Bob Johnson, the park’s chief scientist, explained how the Tamiami Trail and a network of flood-control levees and canals had squeezed off the natural flow of water, almost drying out what had once been the deepest section of the River of Grass.
As a result, he said, much of the rich peat soil that made up the system’s distinctive ridges and slough landscape has oxidized and disappeared.
“This area would historically have a foot of water on it,’’ Johnson said, pointing to a swath that remained dry despite recent heavy rains. “You wouldn’t want to drive your airboat over that.’’
As Interior secretary, Jewell runs an agency often caught in tugs-of-war between conservation and other interests, overseeing not only the nation’s parks and refuges but also bureaus that manage all federal lands and offshore resources, handing out mining and drilling leases to energy companies.
Though Jewell has never run for elected office, she stressed that she wasn’t “completely naïve to politics.’’ As the chief executive of REI, which is based outside Seattle, she had worked with two previous Interior secretaries and had some experience on Capitol Hill pushing to protect wild areas prized by her company’s customers.
“In my last 13 years at REI, it was really evident that a healthy ecosystem and health public lands are really important for a large chunk of the economy,’ said Jewell.
Jewell, who had previously worked as a petroleum engineer and a banker, said she agreed to the president’s request because she thought she could have more influence in protecting “the lands, the waters, the ecosystems I care a lot about.’’
Jewell’s passion for the outdoors extends far beyond business. She’s a highly skilled mountain climber, ascending Mount Rainier in her home state of Washington numerous times, Mount Kilimanjaro and many other daunting peaks. But she stressed she had broader interests and found the Glades captivating. She had canoed with a park ranger in the 10,000 Islands on the Southwest coast of Florida previously, she said, spying manatees and other creatures and also had visited the bird-rich Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples several times.
“People talk about my mountaineering stuff but I am a certified scuba diver, I have a sailboat and a lot of things that float,’’ she joked.
Jewell said she “still getting her feet wet” on some controversial issues, such as expanded offshore oil drilling, but she generally supports the Obama’s administration policy to improve conservation but also broaden and diversify energy sources. The next stop on her trip was to the Gulf Coast to watch an oil spill drill.
Despite the tightening federal budget, she believes there is strong support for the Everglades in Washington, in part because state and federal agencies have set an example by cooperating on restoration goals and projects.
“There are a lot of people working together here, which I think is really a model,’’ she said.