Editorial: Can Obama build a public lands legacy?

Barring some particularly ugly fits of partisanship – which is completely possible in Washington these days – REI Chief Executive Sally Jewell will become the nation's next Interior secretary.

The Sacramento Bee

Given the vast influence the Department of the Interior has over California's water, wildlife, public lands, Indian reservations and energy development, residents of the Golden State should pay close attention.

Jewell is a surprising pick. She isn't well known in California water circles, so it is unclear whether she will veer from policies of her predecessor, Ken Salazar, in attempting to resolve battles involving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Colorado, the Klamath and other rivers.

She isn't a creature of the Beltway, having been born in Britain and raised in Washington state. She worked as an engineer in the oil industry before going into banking, which might alarm some environmentalists, except that Jewell is known as a serious aficionado of the outdoors. She's climbed Mount Rainier multiple times, kayaked, skied and snowboarded the most serious of runs.

Public lands are her playground, and by choosing her to be Interior secretary, President Barack Obama has signaled that he recognizes the growing clout of the outdoor recreation industry and the weekend warriors and gear heads who shop at emporiums such as REI.

Yet if there are lingering questions about Jewell's policy agenda, there are even bigger questions about what kind of Western conservation legacy President Obama has on his radar. Past administrations, particularly that of President Bill Clinton and his Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, used their final terms to push through initiatives of lasting impact. Clinton and Babbitt used the Antiquities Act to establish the 2-million-acre Escalante National Monument in Utah, one of the most extraordinary additions to our protected public lands in decades. They made headway on protecting the Everglades, restored flows in the Trinity River, helped enact the California Desert Protection Act and struck a deal to protect the Headwaters Forest on California's north coast.

By contrast, Obama has shown little interest in Western conservation and visits California mainly to raise campaign dollars. His administration has been the most generous to date in helping Indian tribes expand casinos, hardly a conservation legacy. Numerous critics, including Babbitt himself, have urged Obama to use the Antiquities Act and other tools to preserve the West's unique natural wonders before they get overrun by oil and gas development and other threats.

No doubt, part of Obama's challenge is Congress itself, which seems to have forgotten that Americans care about the outdoors and the amazing national parks and wildlife refuges that are part of the 500 million acres managed by Interior. During her confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jewell was grilled by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., about her tenure on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association. Apparently, some members of Congress are disturbed that an Interior secretary nominee has a history of advocating for our national parks.

Jewell will face big hurdles helping Obama build a conservation legacy. But she needs to push it with as much energy as it takes to climb Mount Rainier. A century from now, people visiting the Escalante National Monument will remember Bill Clinton and Bruce Babbitt for this gift to the nation.

Will Obama and Jewell be remembered for anything comparable?