My View: Outsdoorwoman, CEO is right choice to head U.S. Interior Department

In recent years, those of us involved in land conservation have seen a subtle but steady shift in attitudes about protecting our natural resources. What used to seem like a fringe movement has become mainstream, and ideas that once seemed controversial are embraced by broad segments of the population. People and organizations that once disagreed have found common ground.

It’s a shift that’s good for our future, and a trend that was brought into sharper focus when President Obama nominated Sally Jewell as secretary of the Interior. The naming of a corporate CEO and avid outdoorswoman to the job sends a signal that it is time to eliminate the divisions that once seemed to define attitudes about conservation. “She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress,” the president said when he announced Jewell’s nomination.

She’s not an elected official or a political insider. She’s not made a lot of headlines, despite the fact that she leads a $1.8 billion outdoor recreation and sporting goods retailer, Recreation Equipment Inc. (REI), which has stores across the nation, including in Indianapolis.

If that were the extent of Jewell’s background, her appointment might not seem like a big deal. After all, someone whose company sells tents, kayaks and other outdoorsy stuff isn’t a far-fetched choice for secretary of the Interior. But what about someone who once worked for a large oil company or who spent time as an executive with big banks’ commercial lending divisions, where, among other things, she managed a $20 billion loan portfolio that included energy companies?

It’s true: Jewell’s resume doesn’t seem to lead to her new role. After earning an engineering degree, she started her career as a petroleum engineer at Mobil – a job that, as she told Forbes magazine, helped her “recognize that there is a cost to consumption.” From the oil fields, she moved to the world of finance. She joined the board of REI in 1996, and a few years later she was named its chief operating officer. In 2005, she took over as CEO.

If you look only at those facts, Jewell’s move from the oil industry and banking to REI might seem like a big leap. But if you look at her personal life, you see that she has a long history with the outdoors and, in fact, with REI. After moving to Washington state from England (where Jewell was born) in 1956, her father decided to try camping. So, according to a 2005 story in the Seattle Times, he “became Recreation Equipment Inc. member No. 17249, purchasing his tent at REI’s original store.”

That camping trip launched Jewell’s father on a love of the outdoors that he passed on to her. She remains an avid outdoorswoman who hikes, camps, climbs mountains, skis, bikes and more. She serves as vice chairman of the National Parks Conservation Association, and makes environmental consciousness a priority at REI.

Meanwhile, she runs a successful company. When she took over as chief operating officer, REI was operating in the red. After she took over, in short order the company was posting all-time-high revenues and profits and distributing record dividends to members. It’s often cited as one of the best companies to work for in America, in part because of its environmental stewardship.

I’ve seen REI’s commitment to conservation first hand. After opening its store in Castleton, the company quickly got involved in Central Indiana Land Trust programs, sponsoring a preserve trail building day and providing employees for volunteer efforts.

With her background, Sally Jewell promises to be a refreshing presence in Washington. Like the Central Indiana Land Trust, it appears she believes that the interests of business are not at odds with conservation. Indeed, strategic conservation is critical to sustainable economic development. We look forward to the discussions during Jewell’s confirmation hearings, and are excited about the common ground that has emerged in the effort to preserve our nation’s natural heritage.

Bacher is executive director of the Central Indiana Land Trust.

To visit the full piece featured in the Indy Star on March 7 visit: