Can An Outdoorsy CEO Manage the Interior Department’s Split Personality?

REI chief Sally Jewell gets the nod to become President Obama's next Interior Secretary. She'll try to balance the department's conservation and economic responsibilities

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REI CEO Sally Jewell, right, speaks at her introduction as Interior Secretary nominee with President Obama

The Interior Department has always been a split agency. On one hand, it’s the home of the National Parks Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, its officials stewards to hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, including some of the most beautiful and pristine territory in the United States. On the other hand, it’s also home to the Office of Surface Mining and the Bureau of Land Management, responsible for overseeing the multi-billion dollar oil, gas and mining practices that take place—and sometimes pollute—public land. To both protect the land and profit from it is an impossible, contradictory charge, and the Interior Department usually leans one way or the other, depending on the person in charge.

Under former President George W. Bush, Interior Secretaries Gale Norton and then Dick Kempthorne oversaw a department that almost always privileged the exploitation of resources over conservation. During President Obama’s first term, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar brought more balance to the department, though some environmentalists criticized him for being too eager to open new land or water to drilling—including in the vulnerable Arctic. At the same time, Republicans complained that Salazar imposed overly restrictive regulations on fracking and on drilling on public lands. It’s hard to win at Interior.

That’s the challenge that faces Obama’s new nominee to lead the Interior Department: Sally Jewell, who was announced on Feb. 6. Jewell was a dark horse pick for the job. Unlike Salazar—who was a Democratic senator from Colorado when he was tabbed for the Cabinet—Jewell isn’t a Western politician, the sort usually reserved for Interior. Instead, she’s the president and CEO of the venerable outdoor sports company Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), as well as a board member on the National Parks Conservation Association. But she also has experience in the fossil fuels sector, as a young petroleum engineer with Mobil before it merged with Exxon. And that unique mix of experience might just make her the right person to take on a very difficult job.

(MORE: Under Pressure from High Gas Prices, Obama Looks to Streamline Domestic Oil Production)

Certainly that’s what Obama thinks. At he introduced Jewell in Washington, the President played up his nominee’s business experience:

Sally has helped turn a stalling outdoor retailer into one of America’s most successful and environmentally conscious companies. She 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.

Salazar praised Jewell as well, telling reporters: “Today there’s another crown jewel in the United States.” (Keep your day job, Mr. Secretary. Or, I guess, find a new one, but not stand-up comedy.)

Jewell’s selection drew quick support from conservation groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as Congressional Democrats. Even oil and gas companies—which remain convinced that the Obama Administration is dead set against fossil fuels, despite the boon in domestic oil and gas production over the past few years—seem relatively positive about Jewell, thanks to her background in the petroleum industry. Republicans grumbled, as they do, but with a Democratic advantage in the Senate, it’s hard to see Jewell missing out on confirmation.

(MORE: The U.S. Will Be an Oil Giant Again. But It Won’t Be Energy Independent)

Still, the confirmation hearings should be interesting if only to reveal what Jewell’s views on conservation and energy development really are. Unlike Salazar—who had been in the Senate for four years before becoming Interior Secretary—Jewell is a relative unknown, as Stephen Brown of the petroleum refining company Tesoro told POLITICO:

Salzar was a known entity in Washington, D.C., with his own political base of operations here as well as in Colorado… Ms Jewell is not a political creature, relatively unknown on the Hill, and any power or influence may have is completely derivative of the President—hence, the White House staff will be running the show.

For her part, Jewell called herself “humbled” and “energized” to get the Interior nod. And at the very least, she has seems to have a decent sense of humor—at least by Washington standards. “I’m going to do my best to fill those big boots of yours,” she told Salazar, who has rarely been seen without his cowboy boots and hat. “But I think I might get lost in your hat.” Given how challenging it can be to manage the split personality of the Interior Department, Jewell can use the jokes.

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