Columns Magazine

In her element: 2016 ASLD Sally Jewell

In 2010, Sally Jewell, ’78, led a team of women up Mount Rainier in what was her seventh summit of the peak. Today, as Secretary of the Interior, she oversees the National Park Service and leads the caretakers of the nation’s public lands and waters.

Just after 8 a.m. on Earth Day, four boats laden with park rangers, government officials and journalists speed along Tin Can Channel into Florida Bay. Through the salty spray, they catch the sulphur smell of decaying seagrass.

A few miles out among the mangroves, bottlenose dolphins surface on one side of the boats. A pelican flies by on the other. Sally Jewell perches in the lead Seawolf, looking into the wind as the convoy motors into the largest seagrass system in the world. The 51st Secretary of the Interior is visiting the Florida Everglades on April 22 to see firsthand the troubled drainage system that connects the national park’s flooded grasslands and swamps to the salty bay. Fresh water draining from lands miles up into the state should filter into the bay, diluting the water, but because of drought last year, this sensitive ecosystem is now twice as salty as the ocean, making it much less habitable for plants, fish and wildlife.

As water laps the boat bottoms, the rangers explain that rainfall deficits, boating behaviors and climate change have fostered massive die-offs of seagrass in the shallow basins and channels, toxifying the water and killing the fish. Jewell examines a piece of seagrass in her fingers and proffers questions about unblocking the freshwater flows and reviving the dead zones. The issue is much larger than the 2,300-square-mile national park and broader than the survival of the sea turtle and manatee. It affects the drinking water in Miami and whether, as the sea level is predicted to rise one and a half feet by 2060, the seawater will inundate the city and its suburbs, affecting a population of more than 6 million. Marshes could collapse, plants and animals could die, and the damage may blight the entire southern end of Florida. “This is bigger than climate change, alone,” says Jewell.

The 60-year-old UW alumna is out of her traditional element. She is far from her home state of Washington, her two grown children, her favorite hiking trails, and her various community roles as a member of nonprofit boards, UW Regent, and CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., a Northwest cultural and business landmark.

Now the steamy Everglades are her landscape, along with the 411 National Park areas and 530 million acres of public lands. Since 2013, Jewell has been tasked with policing poachers and giving every fourth-grader and their families a free access pass to all federally managed lands and waters. She faces issues of fracking, climate change (and its deniers), and efforts and pressure to sell acres of public lands into private ownership. Some people want her to open up more land to ranching and mining. Others would rather she leave everything untouched.

“We are in the forever business,” is her mantra. The driving focus of Jewell’s job is delivering healthy public lands and waters to future generations, while supporting a strong economy.

Created in 1849 to oversee the nation’s internal affairs, the Department of the Interior encompasses many things: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement. There are seven other bureaus, the most public of which is the National Park Service, which turns 100 this year. The federal government owns about half the land in the West, and most of it falls under Jewell’s domain.

She has granite-colored hair and a lean physique. In spite of a rigorous travel schedule that included heading to Oregon for a dam removal one week, Puerto Rico to protect public lands from development the next and now Florida the third, she looks primed for a 10-mile hike. “How do you do it? How do you keep looking so good?” asks a woman at a sunbaked social later that Everglades day. Without skipping a beat, Jewell breaks into a grin and quips, “I always take the stairs.”

“We are in the forever business,” is her mantra. The driving focus of Jewell’s job is delivering healthy public lands and waters to future generations, while supporting a strong economy.

Born in London in 1956, Sarah Margaret “Sally” Roffey became a Washingtonian before kindergarten. Her father had landed a fellowship in anesthesiology at the UW School of Medicine and one of the first things he did to acclimate the family to the Northwest was join REI and buy a tent.

By the country’s first Earth Day, in 1970, Jewell was a teenager, had an affinity for hiking, boating and camping and was planning her first attempt on Mount Rainier. She credits her enthusiasm for the outdoors to teacher Ladell Black, ’59, who led small groups of children on rugged two-week camping trips in Washington each summer.

Black studied forestry at the UW. The only woman in the College of Forest Resources at the time, she had to drop out because the teachers couldn’t accommodate her in the student housing in Pack Forest, the UW’s research and education forest. “So I went into botany,” says Black. “And back then what did women botany majors do? They taught.”

In the early 1960s, Black was hired by the Northwest Gifted Child Association to lead precocious children into the wilderness for “what  today I would call an ecology camping program,” she says. The parents demanded a rigorous academic experience to challenge the 9- and 10-year-olds. “Sally and her family were different,” says Black. They wanted to teach her to be inquisitive and resourceful. And little Sally was intrepid, wading into the sound to collect kelp, documenting her experiences in her journal, even climbing trees (and falling out of one, coming home with a broken wrist).

“I remember having pine cone fights and playing games and collecting insects,” says Jewell. She also learned to identify trees, start a fire, map an island, and even conduct an archaeological dig. “All of these things were put on my radar at age nine,” says Jewell. “It really taught me to look at nature in different ways.”

“We just gave them what all children deserve,” says Black, “respect, a variety of experience, and independence.” Though in her 80s and retired in Eastern Washington, Black still works with children, bringing kids out of Colville to explore the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge. “I just wish all children could have those opportunities,” says Jewell. “We are not nurturing that enough.”

Young Sally hadn’t yet imagined that her love of the outdoors might lead to a vocation. In her Renton High School yearbook, she wrote that she aspired to be a dental hygienist. “Why would I say that?” she asks, as we visit at a picnic table. “Part of that was the time. My family was enlightened, but my siblings and I were encouraged to be practical with our studies.”

The Washington Pre-College Test, which was designed to guide Washington students in choosing careers, directed Jewell to nursing, Russian studies, or teaching. “But I scored high on mechanical reasoning and spatial ability,” says Jewell. “Meanwhile, my roommate in Haggett Hall scored better in arts and literature, yet the test recommended the exact same careers for her.”

When she met Warren Jewell, a mechanical engineering student, she was primed for a new course. “Warren’s homework looked a lot more interesting than mine,” she says, explaining how she came to be an engineering major. As classmates they found they shared more than an interest in engineering, and went on their first date on Sally’s 18th birthday. Their courtship included ski trips, hiking, and camping in places like LaPush. They married in 1978, a week after graduation.

While she was at the UW, Jewell’s engineering studies led to a gig with General Electric, working on components for the Alaska Pipeline. After college, she considered more than a dozen job offers before she and Warren, ’78, accepted positions with Mobil Oil in Oklahoma oil and gas fields. After a few years in the Southwest, the pair “desperately missed” Seattle, says Jewell. Both applied for the job of petroleum engineer at Rainier Bank. Sally landed it, and they moved home. She flourished at the bank and is credited for protecting it from making bad loans to the oil industry at a time when many other banks did and failed. “My role there is overstated,” Jewell is quick to say. “I was just 26 when I started. But it was a great opportunity to work with good people and be respected.”

At the time, Rainier’s leaders understood that healthy banks depended on healthy communities, says Jewell. At the urging of her supervisors, she started volunteering. She was a founding board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust and, among other things, a UW Regent from 2001-2013. She also served as a trustee for the National Parks Conservation Association.

After 19 years in banking, Jewell changed course again to become REI’s chief operating officer in 2000 and its CEO in 2005.

Then the White House called. In 2008, the Obama transition team inquired about her interest in public service. “It was a bad time at REI,” says Jewell. The economy had turned, sales had plummeted, and “I didn’t think I could walk out on the organization.” But in 2012, when the White House called again, REI was in a better position, and she was ready. Jewell credits Jerry Grinstein, former CEO of Delta Air Lines and former UW Regent, and William Ruckelshaus, the founding director of the Environmental Protection Agency, with encouraging her to pursue the job. She understood many of the issues, thanks to her background, but she wasn’t a typical appointee. Her predecessor Ken Salazar had been a U.S. senator and the secretary before him was attorney general of Colorado. Jewell had never been in politics. “She’s an unusual appointment,” says Ruckelshaus. “But the breadth of her experience and her fundamental judgment have greatly served her. The president is to be credited for seeing that she was an excellent choice.”

Ruckelshaus met Jewell in the early 2000s while serving on the Initiative for Global Development, a nonprofit that works with the private sector to alleviate poverty in Africa. Having seen Jewell learn quickly and respond well in difficult situations, he encouraged her nomination for the cabinet position. “I’m a great admirer of Sally’s. I think she’s an almost perfect person for that job,” he says. “She has a talent for listening, reasoning, and making difficult decisions. I saw her make the fine balances you have to make.”

Jewell quickly found support on both sides of the aisle. During her confirmation hearings, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, remarked on her work in petroleum and banking and then leading a billion-dollar company. “You sound more like the nominee of a Republican administration,” he said.

In her three years as Interior’s head, Jewell has nudged the department to reduce the extraction of natural resources and toward promoting other, more sustainable benefits of the lands, not the least of which is recreation. She has also made climate change a priority for all her bureaus and departments.

Now, in her last months in office (it is customary for a cabinet member to resign at a change in administration), she hopes to connect more Americans with their public lands. “Do you know the amount of time children today spend in front of a screen?” she asks. “Fifty-six hours a week, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And less than 30 minutes in unstructured outside play.”

The future of our lands depends on these children, she says. With millions of dollars in donations from companies like American Eagle Outfitters, REI Foundation, American Express Foundation, Thule, Coca-Cola and others, and more than $3 million from federal sources, the recently launched 21st Century Conservation Corps can now put thousands of young people and veterans to work on public land service projects nationwide. That, along with the Every Kid in a Park program for fourth-graders and the National Park Service’s Find Your Park campaign, should give more American children, and by extension, more families, an opportunity to experience national parks and other public lands and waters.

In eight months, Jewell intends to treat herself and Warren to some unstructured time by loading up the car and hitting that ribbon of a highway out of the capital. “When I’m done with this job, I’m going to find a lot of parks and public lands on a slow drive back to Seattle.”

—Hannelore Sudermann is managing editor of Columns

This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Columns Magazine, the official magazine for UW Alumni. Columns is published with the support of UW Alumni Association member dues. Read the entire issue online for free.