Sally Jewell has just seen a ghost. Several, really. As she enters the aisle between two rows of eight-foot-tall shelving units, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has come face to face with more than a dozen severed tiger heads. She lets out a quiet “ooh,” somewhere between gasp and sigh. The heads are all taxidermied—jaws open, fangs bared, startled eyes, comprising a gallery of silent roars. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW) officer tells Jewell how few of these cats remain in the wild; such trophies can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. Jewell listens and, moving down the aisle, reflects on how values take time to change—until they do. When she was little, she recalls, her gram owned a snow leopard coat. Later, when her grandmother learned it was from an endangered species, she donated it to a zoo.
Jewell is touring the National Wildlife Property Repository, a 10,000-square-foot facility outside Denver where items made from protected animals get cataloged. The warehouse calls to mind the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead of crated artifacts, however, it’s packed with the remains of animals: tortoise shells; a trunk of shawls made from the wool of a Chiru, a Tibetan antelope; bear claws; ivory shards. As the tour continues, Jewell has a suggestion for Steve Oberholtzer, who runs the repository: invite the fashion trade. “When they see this stuff close up,” she says, “the message will get through, and they’ll be more careful about their sources.”
The policing of poachers, smugglers, and exotic pet owners is but one of the federal functions Jewell supervises, and although it keeps 205 agents busy full time, it’s one of the smaller ones. Interior manages more than 500 million acres, one-fifth of all the land in the U.S., on an annual budget of $12 billion. It controls 23 percent of the nation’s energy supply—mostly oil, gas, and coal on federal lands—and last year disbursed $14.2 billion in energy revenue to federal agencies and state, local, and tribal communities. Interior is also the largest wholesaler of water in 17 Western states, a life-and-death matter for thousands of farms and rural communities. And, of course, it runs more than a thousand parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges, natural and cultural attractions estimated in 2011 to contribute, through tourism, $48.7 billion to the economy. In all, the department estimates that its “value added” economic activity and production contributed $200 billion to the U.S. economy during 2013. (Interior appears to prefer this “value added” figure to straight income because it still spends more than it takes in.)
The agencies that comprise Interior are almost comically at odds with one another. The Bureau of Reclamation operates dams that disrupt fisheries. The USFW endeavors to keep fisheries robust. The U.S. Geological Survey studies rising seas’ impact on coastal areas. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Development facilitates deep-sea drilling permits. The department restores Superfund sites, most notably at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, where the U.S. military made sarin gas during World War II. On the Rocky Mountain Front, the department promotes fracking, a drilling technique that environmentalists contend is toxic. “One of the best ways to tell if we’re doing something right is when both sides are ticked off at us,” Cecil Andrus, President Jimmy Carter’s Interior secretary, famously told an assistant.
Jewell, 58, seems uniquely qualified to balance these contradictions. The former CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., a Seattle-based outdoor gear and apparel retailer, she worked previously as a commercial banker, starting at a regional bank assessing the value of oil and gas reserves as debt collateral. “From your résumé, I can see you worked on the Alaska pipeline, and you’re an oil and gas engineer,” Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) began, recapping her CV during her April 2013 confirmation hearing. He sought—and got—her mostly nodded affirmation for each point: “And you said you once fracked a well? You were a banker for 20 years? The chief executive officer of a billion-dollar company?” He paused dramatically. “How did you get appointed by this administration?!”
When asked if her values as an outdoorswoman and conservationist conflict with her fossil fuel expertise, Jewell says, “There’s no reconciling to be done.” It’s the day after her repository tour, and she’s sitting in the lobby of a Hampton Inn & Suites in Las Cruces, N.M. “I’m going to be flying home on an airplane. Planes burn fossil fuels. So I don’t think we can afford to be hypocritical,” she says. “I just think we need to open our eyes and understand that these things have tradeoffs. And we need to apply our ingenuity to a future that we didn’t understand in the ’70s and ’80s, when we were really focused solely on fossil fuels.”