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Land Matters: Interior Motives

Here is the state of your U.S. Department of Interior and the Senate committee that oversees it: During the confirmation hearing on March 7 of Sally Jewell, the REI chief executive whom President Obama has chosen to lead the department, just one of 18 senators, Bernard Sanders (I-Vermont), questioned Jewell about the federal government’s vast public land and resource holdings in any way that might matter to most Americans.

Sanders asked Jewell her views on climate change, which he called the greatest threat of our time. Jewell replied that she believes climate change is real, and cited Obama’s reference to it in his State of the Union address. Sanders then asked, “Can I count on you to be a strong ally in the transformation of our energy system away from fossil fuels into energy efficiency and sustainable energy?”

Jewell was as vague as she was through most of the hearing. She replied that she supported the president’s “all of the above” energy strategy. That means fossil fuel development, renewable energy, and, in a glance at conservation, higher auto fuel efficiency. Nothing shocking, but not a strong ally in transformation.

The other 17 senators, as they tried to penetrate the mind of the person who would oversee the nation’s fuel and mineral wealth as well as its wildlife and national parks, had something in common: gimme, gimme, gimme. The committee chairman, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), was vitally interested in boosting timber production and getting “our people back to work in the woods” of his state. (Nothing about the wolverines of Oregon and elsewhere, which were recently proposed for listing as endangered now that there are thought to be about 300 of them left in the lower 48.) Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) wanted to know how Jewell would define a “stream” (as opposed to a “drainage ditch”), because the semantics division of the Office of Surface Mining is apparently obstructing the mining of coal in his state to protect waterways and is killing tens of thousands of jobs.

Mountaintop mining came up, but not in so many words. Manchin was not about to say, as Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) did, “I believe in saving mountaintops. I am not in favor of blowing them up,” but Alexander has about 2 percent of the coal mining jobs in his state that Manchin does. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) queried Jewell’s views about all the oil and gas off his state’s coast in the Atlantic Ocean. He complained that Obama’s all-of-the-above strategy does not seem to include drilling it.

Mike Lee (R-Utah) noted that his constituents in San Juan County can’t tax 90 percent of their land because it’s federally owned, and 10 percent of what they can tax is habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found in danger of extinction and wants to protect. That question came as close as any to endangered species or endangered anything. Nobody asked about the ridiculous maintenance backlog—now here are some jobs—in the nearly 400 parks and sites of the National Park Service. We have been hearing about the backlog for years, and it is estimated to be in the billions by the National Parks Conservation Association, a group for which Jewell has served as a board member.

That affiliation of Jewell’s, by the way, worries some of the committee members. What the committee admired was her background in working on an Alaska oil pipeline, at Mobil as an engineer, and as a banker. She will be probably be confirmed if nobody holds up the vote. The committee’s ranking Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, wanted some sort of extra assurance, though. She asked whether there was anything Jewell thought “might surprise or even concern some of your friends in the environmental community.” Jewell answered blandly that we need to protect resources, but we still need cars and stuff. Jewell mentioned a “both/and” take on conservation and development, “a balanced approach.” Not surprising, like the rest of the hearing, but concerning.

Bradford McKee
Landscape Architecture Magazine

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