Letters from the West

Interior Secretary Jewell defends, promotes America’s public lands

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell laid out the case in a speech Tuesday for the U.S. to make a course correction in conservation that confronts climate change, invests more in our natural and recreation infrastructure, and helps build a new generation of nature lovers.

And Jewell’s path will run through Idaho, where she said she’ll come to listen and promote the ambitious landscape conservation plan for the 173 million acres of sagebrush steppe. “I plan to visit Idaho to discuss building resilient sagebrush landscapes in the face of wildfires,” Jewell said.

She talked about how she came to Idaho and the West and listened to governors, ranchers, county commissioners and others as her land and wildlife agencies developed plans to protect sage grouse across 11 states. These plans incorporated science and the needs of the people who use and make their living across the huge ecosystem that is a defining symbol of the wide open spaces of the American West.

Best of all, the plans were robust enough to let the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determine that listing the sage grouse under the federal Endangered Species Act was unnecessary.

“That’s the model for the future of conservation,” Jewell said in a speech this week at the National Geographic Society. “That big-picture, roll-up-your-sleeves, get-input-from-all-stakeholders kind of planning is how land management agencies should orient themselves in the 21st century.”

Actually, in her support and shrewd stewarding of the sage grouse effort, Jewell wasn’t really changing the course of conservation but building on collaborative and cooperative conservation that reaches back to the 1990s, said Lyn Scarlett, the managing director of public policy for the Nature Conservancy and deputy Interior secretary under President George W. Bush .

I covered Scarlett’s own success in turning the Bush Administration from a policy of encouraging widespread sage grouse habitat destruction under Interior Secretary Gale Norton to the beginnings of landscape conservation under Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. She’s worked closely with Jewell in her new job and watched as the former CEO of REI has used her business leadership skills to turn thought into action.

When Jewell first took the job, many insiders on all sides of the resource world told me she was tentative and naive about how you get things done in Washington, D.C. Unlike former Interior secretaries Cecil Andrus and Bruce Babbitt, she appeared interested in recommending President Barack Obama proclaim national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 2006 only when the proposals had widespread local support and Congress couldn’t deliver.

“If Congress doesn’t step up to act to protect some of these important places that have been identified by communities and people throughout the country, then the president will take action,” Jewell said in October 2013.

But this week she made it clear that consensus isn’t necessary for the proposals she intends to make before Obama leaves office. And she signaled to House Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that she might propose monument proposals for places targeted in wilderness bills he introduced, knowing his proposals included poison-pill language preservationists cannot support. She included Utah in her conservation road show to look at areas “where there are a range of conservation proposals — legislative and otherwise — to further protect public lands.”

Since her speech addressed Yellowstone’s need for additional protections beyond its current borders, perhaps she might include in her Antiquities Act review the Idaho Yellowstone Caldera National Monument around Mesa Falls that Kempthorne studied before he left. If there is any place Obama should seek to protect a greater ecosystem in the centennial year of the National Park Service, is it not Yellowstone?

Naturalist and writer David Quammen made the case far better than I about greater Yellowstone in the latest edition of National Geographic.

Where Secretary Jewell set herself apart from other federal officials and her previous timid nature was her willingness to take on the idea of transferring and selling off the public lands. She spoke about “the emergence of an extreme movement to seize public lands — from Oregon to Puerto Rico — putting lands that belong to all Americans at risk of being sold off for a short-term gain to the highest bidder.”

Taking on the Bundys’ takeover at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Bishop’s bill that would dispose of 3,100 acres of a wildlife refuge to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico so it can reduce its debt gives public land supporters a big boost.

“For somebody who was fairly cautious, she’s really stepped up,” said Brad Brooks, deputy regional director of The Wilderness Society.

Jewell isn’t just going out and pushing her ideas. She says she wants to hear yours and mine. Listening is what brought her success on sage grouse, regardless of what her critics say. That’s why she’s going to places such as the Everglades and Montana along with Idaho and Utah to ask these questions:

“What places are special to you and why? What’s important to your community’s economy, your identity, your heritage? And how can we make it easier for you to visit and enjoy your public lands?”

Tell her in the comments on this column online, and I’ll make sure they get shared with Jewell.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker