Jewell in the Rough

Interior secretary nominee serves on board of group that sued Interior Department
Barack Obama, Sally Jewell / AP

Barack Obama, Sally Jewell / AP

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Interior secretary nominee Sally Jewell previously served on the board of an environmental group that has filed dozens of lawsuits against the federal government, including against the Department of Interior.

Jewell, who was nominated by President Barack Obama Wednesday, joined the board of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in 2004 and currently serves as one of the group’s vice-chairs.

The NPCA has filed numerous lawsuits against the federal government to limit public access and other activities in national parks and has recouped hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in settlements.

For example, the NPCA filed a lawsuit to strike down a federal regulation allowing concealed firearms in national parks. It also has sued the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, Duke Energy (a major Obama donor), and the EPA again.

The NPCA often recoups its legal costs at the expense of taxpayers using the Equal Access to Justice Act, a common tactic among environmental groups.

The NPCA sued the Interior Department in 2007 over its decision, known as the Winter Use Plan, to allow more snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. The district court for the District of Columbia vacated the use plan, and the federal government settled with the group for $150,996 in 2010.

While Jewell’s nomination has been well-received by Democrats, environmental groups, and even industry associations—Jewell began her career at Mobil Oil Corp—her association with the NPCA has raised concerns among some Republicans that she will pursue the group’s left-wing agenda.

Critics say the NPCA lawsuits killed jobs, costs taxpayers money, drained agency resources, and limited the general public’s access to federal lands.

“I have some reservations about President Obama’s selection of Sally Jewell,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R., Utah) said in a statement.

“While I certainly respect her business expertise, the president had other options who possessed extensive experience with public policy in the west and the impacts of so much federally-owned land,” Bishop continued. “Additionally, her company has intimately supported several special interest groups and subsequently helped to advance their radical political agendas.”

The NPCA also spent more than $300,000 lobbying in 2012 in addition to suing the government, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The NPCA “has a long reach and a lot of tentacles into the Hill and the administration,” one Republican aide said.

The NPCA caught the attention of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2009 for its lobbying activity on the stimulus bill.

More than $2 billion was steered toward national parks through the stimulus, which was double the park system’s annual appropriations. The NPCA’s lead lobbyist was Craig Obey, whose father, Rep. David Obey (D., Wis.), was chair of the House Appropriations Committee at the time.

The NPCA and Rep. Obey denied that any inappropriate lobbying took place.

Jewell is also the CEO of the outdoor gear company REI. That company has an active lobbying presence on Capitol Hill and has partnered with the Obama administration on some of its environmental initiatives.

REI spent $610,000 lobbying the federal government between 2009 and 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Much of that money went toward lobbying for expansion of national wilderness areas.

“They’re basically like a for-profit environmental group,” the Republican aide said.

Jewell participated in a panel touting the Obama administration’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R., N.M.) said he has “some concerns about Ms. Jewell but hopes that our senators will voice New Mexico’s needs during the confirmation process.”

“In New Mexico, our jobs and hundreds of millions in state funding for education, roads, and public safety are at stake because of the Department of the Interior’s policy of choosing radical agendas over our state’s needs,” Pearce continued in a statement to the Free Beacon. “Both as a representative of New Mexico and as chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, I look forward to working with the new interior secretary to change this trend and bring Washington’s attention to the land use and regulatory issues vital to western states.”

Senate Republicans are approaching Jewell with caution.

“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,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), one of the most vocal advocates for increasing U.S. oil and gas production, said in a statement Wednesday.

However, industry groups have reacted favorably to Jewell’s nomination thanks to her work in the private sector.

“The Department of the Interior is key to the future of American energy policy,” said Jack Gerard, the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. “We look forward to learning how Sally Jewell’s business background and experience in the oil and natural gas industry will shape her approach to the game-changing prospects before us in energy development.”

Jewell would be in charge of managing 500 million acres of public land as well as overseeing the nation’s oil and gas development, national parks, and endangered species protection if confirmed by the Senate. She will also handle decisions on hotly debated issues such as offshore drilling and fracking.

Environmental groups have applauded the nomination.

The NPCA did not immediately return a request for comment but released a statement yesterday.

“The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) applauds President Obama’s nomination of Sally Jewell, president and chief executive of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), as secretary of the Department of the Interior,” the organization said. “Sally Jewell is an outstanding business leader, advocate for outdoor recreation, and national parks supporter and will make a top notch member of the president’s cabinet.”