Letters from the West

Jewell’s all hands, all lands vision draws strength from Interior employees

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in Idaho

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell tours the aftermath of the Soda Fire in southwest Idaho and reflects on her legacy.
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U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell tours the aftermath of the Soda Fire in southwest Idaho and reflects on her legacy.

Tell Interior Secretary Sally Jewell public land is controlled by top-down edicts from Washington, and she will push back immediately.

“I don’t think that’s accurate,” Jewell says.

“I would say that I’ve not been witness to a situation where we’ve had a thoughtful discussion about where something needs to go and then someone in Washington makes an arbitrary decision to change it. That’s a dialogue people like to talk about but I don’t think is accurate,” she said in an interview with the Idaho Statesman.

But whether it’s getting 173 million acres of sagebrush habitat sufficiently protected from development to keep sage grouse off the federal endangered species list, or siting a high-power transmission line through Southern Idaho, she’s ready to stand up even if it’s unpopular.

“There has to be voices who speak up for benefit of the intangible value of the landscape, and that’s part of what we do,” Jewell said.

As Jewell enters the final eight months of her tenure as Obama’s Interior secretary, she’s taking on a more forceful role as defender of the federal government’s place in the West and the value of federal employees in their work and their communities.

Jewell seeks to counter the perception that led Utah and other Western states to promote the idea of transferring federal lands to the states. Anti-federal rhetoric hit its peak earlier this year when a band of militia led by Emmett’s Ammon Bundy occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon for 41 days.

Soon after the last Malheur holdouts left in March, Jewell met with refuge employees and they were her first concern. Most had been forced to leave Burns for the duration, and some already have moved on. Months of threats and harassment had an effect on employees, their families and others in the community, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said.

It’s rough. We’re going to lose a lot of staff there because they’re afraid.

Sally Jewell, on employees at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge

Chad Karges, manager of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, confirmed that some staff had moved to other refuges and jobs. They didn’t all leave because of fear or harassment, he said. “Each one was impacted differently because of their individual personalities,” he said.

LINES ON A MAP

Jewell calls her collaborative vision “all hands, all lands.” The idea is that wildlife depend not only on public land but private and state lands and that states have the lead role in managing wildlife. It has guided her effort to develop a sage grouse plan across 11 Western states, including Idaho, where oil and gas drilling, renewable energy development, livestock grazing and population growth all take place on much the same landscape.

Instead of drawing lines on a map with zones that dictate different uses, Jewell has sought to look at the landscape like the wildlife that uses it — without paying attention to lines or artificial barriers.

Even as the Bundys occupied the refuge, Karges and other federal officials continued to meet with ranchers and others in a 10-year collaboration called the High Desert Partnership. When the occupation ended, they picked up where they left it and actually expanded their focus beyond ecology and grazing issues to social issuessuch as education and economic development.

Jewell called it “a model” for how things should work.

“I think the lack of support for the occupiers at the Malheur refuge is indicative of a community that is proud to work in harmony with nature and has good collaborative relationships with the federal land managers,” Jewell said.

The former Recreational Equipment Inc. CEO took over in 2013 as the nation’s top wildlife manager and landlord of more than 500 million acres of national parks, federal rangeland and wildlife refuges. That includes more than 16 million acres in Idaho, from the Owyhee Canyonlands to Yellowstone National Park.

She’s also one of the nation’s top wildland firefighters, and on her stop in Idaho in May she met with fire managers at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise and toured the 280,000-acre Soda Fire that burned across Owyhee County. That brought criticism from Owyhee County Commissioner Kelly Aberasturi, who said county officials had not been contacted before her visit.

But later, BLM Director Neil Kornze met Aberasturi at a national county meeting in Jackson, Wyo. Face-to-face discussion on issues ranging from the proposed Gateway high-power transmission line to fire rehab and grazing gave Aberasturi hope the differences can be addressed.

“I think they are trying,” Aberasturi said. “I think they heard the message.”

SOLUTIONS THAT LAST

Jewell needs to demonstrate that her agencies are reducing threats to sage grouse from wildfires, weeds, oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing and more, said Will Whelan, Nature Conservancy of Idaho public affairs director. At the same time, he said, she needs to broaden Western support for sage grouse conservation. The states also need stepped-up federal investment in preventing, fighting and restoration after range fires.

“In short, the federal and state interests need each other,” Whelan said.

Jewell told reporters that collaboration between federal and state officials and the many groups with interests on public lands is the only way to get solutions that will last. But even when they do that, they end up in court — and in the case of sage grouse policy, with legal challenges coming from both development and conservation sides.

Interior officials continue to work with Idaho and other states even as the lawsuits move forward.

Congress, too, wants to roll back some of the increased restrictions on use and development in land management plans that helped Jewell keep sage grouse off the endangered list. Jewell is confident her sage grouse vision will survive.

“This is launched,” she said, “and you’re not going to put this genie back in the bottle”.

When Jewell arrived at the Interior Department from Seattle, pundits said she was not forcefully pushing her own agenda and was naive about how to get opponents to collaborate. But the former CEO used the same management style she used at REI, drawing her strength from the employees in the field she visited regularly, said Joel Connelly, a longtime columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

When he interviewed her soon after she took the job, he said, she was defensive and appeared lonely at the top. He met with her in March and found a different leader.

I found her robust and self-confident.

Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-intelligencer columnist

In Idaho in late May, Jewell surrounded herself with biologists, range conservationists and local managers, crouching for a closer look at tiny sagebrush plants sprouting after spring rains.

“What I saw today are incredibly committed, hard-working federal government officials with Bureau of Land Management and other agencies that are the kind of people you’d love to work alongside,” Jewell said. “They are not reflective of the kind of rhetoric and dialogue about federal officials (you hear) out there.”

Owyhee County Commissioner Aberasturi said he knows no one is going to get all they want out of the land management agencies, but he believes the federal managers are trying to do what they think is right. He, too, wants to avoid the kind of division that resulted in the Malheur standoff.

“That’s the last thing I want to see happening in this county,” he said.

Jewell acknowledged that some of the West’s view of a top-down management style comes from the agencies themselves and the federal workers who must defend sometimes-painful decisions. She said she’s willing to be the “bad cop” if necessary when those employees have to enforce a rule against a neighbor or another parent with kids in the same schools.

“You may know exactly why a decision is being made, but it’s a lot easier to say, ‘Well that’s not what I wanted to do, but the guys in D.C. wanted to do it,’ ” she said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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