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Will Obama's Interior Secretary nominee help, hurt Alaska?

Craig Medred
President Obama has nominated REI chief executive Sally Jewell to lead the Department of the Interior for his second administration. Courtesy: Pete Souza, White House

The selection of the CEO for Seattle-based REI as the country's new Secretary of the Interior was met with guarded responses from Alaska political leaders in the nation's capital on Wednesday. President Barack Obama said he picked Sally Jewel for the post because of her expertise in "the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future."

For the past eight years, Jewell has run one of largest U.S. retailers of camping, hiking, climbing and other outdoor gear. REI began as the Recreational Equipment Co-op in Seattle, a city with a long historic link to Alaska, and is one of the best known brands in the north. The company has a very popular store on Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage. But the brand is also strongly associated with an environmental movement that has long fought Alaska development.

As the REI website notes, "outdoor recreation is our passion. (But) we're equally passionate about protecting and maintaining the places where we hike, climb, cycle, camp, paddle and ski. Advancing environmental stewardship through corporate giving, volunteerism and outreach programs is a key REI imperative in protecting the outdoors for future generations."

Some have noted Jewell, a native of Great Britain, began her working career as an oil industry engineer, and that could make her sympathetic to energy needs when trying to find a balance between development and the environment. Others have observed that the oil industry is where she is from -- not the place where she is at.

Oil and gas development are huge issues in Alaska where the oil and gas industry provides thousands of jobs and pays about 90 percent of the cost of state government.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said in a prepared statement that "I think there is more we need to learn about Sally Jewell and what this decision means for Alaska." 

Begich has been a strong advocate for oil and gas development in the state, as has Alaska's senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

"The livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity. I look forward to hearing about the qualifications Ms. Jewell has that make her a suitable candidate to run such an important agency, and how she plans to restore balance to the Interior Department,'' Murkowski said in her statement. 

The Senate must vote to approve all of the president's Cabinet appointments, of which Interior Secretary is one.

Both of the state's senators took note of the power Interior wields in a state where most land is under federal ownership.

"The Department of Interior has enormous influence over Alaska's land, resources and its relationship with our state's First Peoples. I look forward to meeting with Ms. Jewell about our state's vast energy resources and other issues as part of my continuing efforts to push the Administration to understand Alaska and our unique needs,'' Begich observed.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com