Obama picks outdoor retail exec to lead Interior
President Barack Obama's choice for interior secretary is a lifelong outdoors enthusiast who likes to bike, ski and climb mountains.
As president and chief executive at Recreational Equipment Inc., Sally Jewell has applied her passion to her job, helping push REI to nearly $2 billion in annual revenues and a place on Fortune Magazine's list of "Best Places to Work."
Now Obama hopes to take advantage of Jewell's love for the outdoors and her business sense as she takes over at Interior, the federal department responsible for national parks and other public lands.
In announcing the nomination, Obama said Jewell has earned national recognition for her environmental stewardship at REI, which sells clothing and gear for outdoor enthusiasts. He also noted her experience as an engineer in oil fields and her fondness for mountain climbing.
The toughest part of Jewell's new job "will probably be sitting behind a desk," Obama said.
At a White House ceremony Wednesday, Obama said Jewell "knows the link between conservation and good jobs. She knows that there's no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress - that, in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand."
At REI, Jewell "has shown that a company with more than $1 billion in sales can do the right thing for our planet," Obama said. Last year, REI donated nearly $4 million to protect trails and parks, and 20 percent of the electricity used in the company's stores comes from renewable sources.
If confirmed by the Senate, Jewell, 56, would replace current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who has announced he will step down in March.
Jewell said she was "humbled and energized" at the prospect of leading Interior, which manages more than 500 million acres in national parks and other public lands, as well as more than 1 billion acres offshore. The department oversees energy, mining operations and recreation and provides services to 566 federally recognized Indian tribes.
"I have a great job at REI today, but there's no role that compares to the call to serve my country as secretary of the Department of Interior," she said.
Jewell was born in England but moved to the Seattle area before age 4. She has led Kent, Wash.-based REI since 2005. She served as chief operating officer for five years before taking the top job and worked for nearly two decades in commercial banking before that. She also has worked as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp.
Jewell emerged as a frontrunner for the Interior post in recent days, edging out better-known Democrats such as former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. The Interior job traditionally has gone to politicians from Western states. Salazar was a Colorado senator before taking over at Interior in 2009.
Jewell donated $5,000 to Obama's re-election effort and has supported other Democrats, campaign finance records show.
Jewell is the first woman Obama has nominated for his second-term Cabinet and a prominent representative from the business community, addressing two criticisms Obama has faced.
While relatively unknown in political circles, Jewell is no stranger to the White House. In 2011, she introduced Obama at a White House conference on the "America's Great Outdoors" initiative, noting that the $289 billion outdoor-recreation industry supports 6.5 million jobs. She also appeared at a 2009 White House event on health care.
Jewell, who won the Audubon Society's 2009 Rachel Carson Award for Environmental Conservation, was hailed by environmental and business groups alike.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune called her a champion in the effort to connect children with nature and said she has "a demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans - recreation, adventure, and enjoyment."
Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and natural gas industry, said Jewell's experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader "will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation's energy portfolio."
Jewell, who is married with two grown children, was paid more than $2 million as REI's CEO in 2011. She contributed $5,000 to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee set up by Obama and the Democratic Party, according to federal election records. She has contributed to numerous Democrats in her home state, including Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and both of Alaska's senators, Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Lisa Murkowski.
Cantwell, Udall and Murkowski all serve on the Senate energy panel, which will consider Jewell's nomination.
Jewell also was on the board of directors of Avista Corp., a Spokane-based power utility, from 1997 through 2003. U.S. Securities and Exchange documents show that in her last full year as an Avista board member, Jewell held more than 15,600 shares in the utility and received $50,000 in director's fees.
In 2004, federal prosecutors charged that Avista played a role in a 2000 deal that allowed then-energy giant Enron to sell a $3 million turbine to the northwest utility firm. Prosecutors did not criminally charge Avista, but said the utility agreed to buy the turbine before a larger deal was completed - a move that aided Enron in hiding the turbine deal from its auditors.
Avista was not criminally charged in the Enron indictment and none of the utility's officials, including Jewell, were cited in the charges.
Associated Press writers Jack Gillum and Stephen Braun in Washington and Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.
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