Interior pick puts outdoor industry in spotlight

Sunday - 3/10/2013, 10:04am EDT

FILE - This March 22, 2006 file photo shows Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) CEO Sally Jewell climbing the 65-foot rock climbing pinnacle at REI's Seattle flagship store. She doesn’t wear a cowboy hat favored by traditional picks for Secretary of the Interior. Jewell prefers fleece and Gore-Tex jackets and wears a safety helmet when she needs it for scaling cliffs, skiing or kayaking. (AP Photo/Scott Cohen, File)

NICHOLAS RICCARDI
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- She doesn't wear a cowboy hat favored by traditional picks for interior secretary. Sally Jewell prefers fleece and Gore-Tex jackets and wears a safety helmet when she needs it for scaling cliffs, skiing or kayaking.

Jewell, the 57-year-old chief of Recreational Equipment Inc., represents a new face for a cabinet post more often associated with ranching or oil, gas and mining development. The fact that a mountain-climbing CEO of an outdoors company is President Barack Obama's nominee underscores a new reality in Washington and beyond: the growing influence of outdoor recreation as a political and economic force.

"It's a total game-changer -- a recognition of changes in how public lands are used," said Peter Metcalf, president and CEO of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Inc., a maker of ski and climbing gear and apparel. "Politics in Washington have finally caught up with reality."

While past interior secretaries have ranged from conservationists, like former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, to allies of industry like Reagan's first Interior Secretary James G. Watt, they always have been challenged by the competing forces that want to use the federal government's vast lands. That tension doesn't figure to ease under Jewell, who faced her first Senate hearing Thursday and is expected to be confirmed in coming weeks.

Critics complain that the outdoor industry has worked to lock up valuable lands and stymie development in the West. Though oil and gas trade groups aren't opposing Jewell, the nomination of a woman who has a led a recreation-focused company with 128 stores in 31 states alarms some who argue that she might favor her own industry over others.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah said the recreation industry is "a special interest group like any other .... They have clearly wanted their industry to have a primary position on certain pieces of land."

At Thursday's hearing, Jewell cited federal statistics showing that the Interior Department generated more than $12 billion in revenue from energy production last year, and that visitors to national parks generated an estimated $30 billion in economic activity.

"These are impressive numbers. They underscore the important balance that the Department of the Interior must maintain to ensure that our public lands and waters are managed wisely, using the best science available, to harness their economic potential while preserving their multiple uses for future generations," she said.

Jewell, who also has experience in the oil industry and as a banker, already has been tested with demands as she prepares to take over the department, which manages 780,000 square miles of public lands, including the national parks.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski threatened to hold up Jewell's nomination if the Obama administration refuses to approve a road to an all-weather airport across a wildlife refuge in the Aleutian Islands. Murkowski called Jewell into her Washington office Feb. 27 on the demand, but said she's expecting departing interior secretary Ken Salazar to give the approval before he leaves office.

It wasn't long ago that that the notion of the outdoors industry holding major political clout would have been difficult to imagine.

"We've always thought the outdoor sector was important. It's just getting others to recognize it that was the challenge," said Sue Rechner, chief of Confluence Watersports, a Greenville, S.C., maker of Mad River canoes and other watersports brands.

Outdoor executives acknowledge they were somewhat naive when they started in politics. They first tried to lobby members of Congress by giving ice-ax awards -- that didn't cut it, said Metcalf, one of the industry's most active and passionate voices.

"Some of the feedback we began to get back was, 'By the way, this is Washington, D.C. Money talks. Nice to hear from you, but I got a campaign to run,'" he said. "So we began making contributions. It was clear if there wasn't any money behind it, we were compromising ourselves."

Industry officials say Americans spend $646 billion a year on outdoor gear and apparel, off-road vehicles and travel and services, creating 6.1 million professional and seasonal jobs. Many American brands dominate the global marketplace for outdoor equipment.

In Washington, the 4,000-member Outdoor Industry Association tripled its PAC contributions in 2012 to nearly $90,000, according to data compiled by opensecrets.org. The industry spends around $300,000 a year on lobbying, but says it didn't push for Jewell's nomination and that she earned it on her own.

In Utah, the OIA pressured the state's Republican governor to treat outdoor recreation seriously by threatening to pull a lucrative trade show out of Salt Lake City. They have helped fund nonprofits that push for increased land preservation, sometimes butting heads with energy groups seeking to drill on federal lands.