Letters from the West

Secretary Jewell wants to help Zinke, her Republican successor at Interior, be a success

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell answers questions at a meeting with federal employees at Boise State University Tuesday.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell answers questions at a meeting with federal employees at Boise State University Tuesday.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said goodbye to more than 300 federal employees Tuesday at Boise State University.

The former REI chief executive has had a strong relationship with the 65,000 men and women who serve under her in the Department of the Interior. The meeting was closed to reporters, but Andrus Center for Public Policy Executive Director John Freemuth was at the talk, and he said she was received warmly.

“There was clearly respect and affection in the room,” Freemuth said.

Jewell will leave office Jan. 20 when President Donald Trump is inaugurated. She is making one last tour of the nation to both recognize her successes and to finish the job. She issued a secretarial order Wednesday directing bureaus to support California’s efforts to address the effects of drought and climate change on the state’s water supply and imperiled wildlife.

Many of the actions she and President Barack Obama have taken since the election — placing portions of offshore areas in the Arctic and Atlantic off-limits to oil drilling, designating national monuments in Utah and Nevada, stopping mining next to the Boundary Waters wilderness in Minnesota — are controversial. Trump and Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke might try their best to try to reverse some of those decisions.

Jewell called Zinke Don ec. 16, the day Trump’s transition team confirmed his nomination. She didn’t want to simply congratulate him. She wanted to lay the groundwork to help him succeed, the way her friend and former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne did for her in 2013. She also plans to meet with Zinke in Washington in the coming days.

In their phone call, she said, she told Zinke how important it will be for him to explain the value of the many Interior agencies — which are critical to the economy of the American West — to the White House budget chiefs in the Office of Management and Budget. Understanding, protecting and steering funding to critical programs is a major job, she said.

“If you don’t have a head of OMB that understands the challenges you face, it’s going to be pretty tough,” Jewell said she told Zinke.

She talked to Zinke about how, no matter what people believe is the cause of climate change, her agencies are facing droughts, longer and fiercer fires, transformations of ecosystems by invasive species, and the loss of fish and wildlife habitat that must be dealt with.

Zinke is a Montanan who grew up near Glacier National Park, so he clearly knows the value of national parks, and also understands American Indian tribes, she said. The Department of Interior includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees the trust relationship with the nation’s tribes.

Especially important, Jewell said, is that Zinke is trained as a geologist and has great respect for the U.S. Geological Survey, which manages many of the agencies’ scientists.

“He talked about how important science is,” Jewell said.

With Trump and his advisers challenging the scientific community’s consensus on climate change, many scientists are worried about the upcoming administration.

Most of the environmental community this week decried new House rules that would “score” — valuing, in federal budget parlance — federal land at no cost, which could allow lawmakers to make land transfers without other budget offsets, as are currently required. Environmentalists, hunters, anglers and others fear that could lead to the loss of public land.

But the House rule package contains an even more ominous provision for Interior employees. It reinstates the Holman Rule, a provision not used since 1983, that allows lawmakers to amend an appropriations bill to cut agency spending, reduce the number of federal employees or cut the salary or “compensation of any person paid out of the Treasury of the United States.”

That should worry Zinke, because a third of the Interior staff nationwide is eligible for retirement now; another third will be eligible in another five years.

One third of Interior’s employees are scientists and engineers. If these scientists or the people he hopes to recruit see the federal employment atmosphere as threatening, they will leave or seek careers elsewhere.

Jewell said she told Zinke the scientists are professionals who will help him advance his policy even when they don’t agree — if he listens to them.

She warned him that people from both ideological extreme sides of the divide — people who want everything protected and people who want everything open to development — will give him just enough information to make the decision they want him to make.

“I told him about the importance of listening to all sides,” Jewell said.

One of Jewell’s early critics was former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, the ex-Idaho governor who worried that she would be captured by the bureaucracy and be unable to make progress. But her bold, savvy leadership gained his respect.

Jewell had lunch with Andrus on Tuesday while in Boise. He told her staff and a few of the local federal managers at the lunch at the Andrus Center his views.

“I want you all to know she’s done a great job,” Andrus said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker