Here is some unsolicited advice for Sally Jewell, President Obama’s surprise nominee to run the Interior Department. She should read her prospective boss’s State of the Union address very carefully.
What she will find there is the strong suggestion that the public lands she will be asked to manage wisely and for all Americans serve one purpose only: to produce energy, whether oil or gas or solar or wind. The idea that these lands are also valuable as national parkland, as habitat for thousands of animal and plant species, or as sources of clean water, is nowhere mentioned in that speech.
By both commission and omission, the speech gave an inkling of a political reality that interior secretaries have faced over and over again: Conservation does not loom large in the White House, especially when the economy is sour. Bruce Babbitt, Bill Clinton’s interior secretary, has said he could hardly get a word in edgewise in the White House until Dick Morris, then the president’s chief pollster, showed up in 1994 with numbers showing that Republicans were killing themselves politically with their anti-environmental agenda. At which point Clinton became something of a born-again environmentalist.
Obama may experience a similar epiphany, making it easier for Jewell to tackle the difficult tasks and obligations that await the next interior secretary. The last Congress did not establish a single new acre of permanent wilderness. The president made almost no use of the Antiquities Act to establish new monuments. The current secretary, Ken Salazar, moved early to rescind George W. Bush’s drill-now, drill-everywhere oil and gas policies, particularly in Alaska. But by last fall’s campaign, both he and Obama had begun to sound for all the world like Bush and Dick Cheney in their eagerness to please the fossil-fuel crowd.
As a businesswoman, Jewell is a break from the long line of Western politicians who have occupied the interior post. If she has no political baggage, she also has none of the political clout that a senator or governor would bring to the job. Which is one more reason that she will need the help of a president who so far has not shown much passion for the issues she will confront.
Robert B. Semple Jr. is a writer for The New York Times.
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