WASHINGTON — Just as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell started her job in April, her department was faced with across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. Then there was the 16-day partial government shutdown last month, where the National Park Service took heat from Congress and the public for shuttering parks and monuments.
The shutdown served as a reminder of “what’s at stake,” for America’s public lands, Jewell told a group Thursday at the National Press Club, where she highlighted the importance of a conservation legacy amid budget cuts, tensions between development and conservation, and climate change.
“Do we want a legacy of shortsighted funding and partisan gridlock that we’ve witnessed in Congress over the last few years?” Jewell asked. “I don’t think so.”
She called on Congress to pass a budget that does not cut funding to the Park Service, and to protect more public lands as national parks or wilderness areas, something it has not done since 2010.
“Our public lands are important in so many ways,” Jewell said. “They drive our economies, but they also drive things that fill the soul and help define who we are as a nation.”
But to leave such a legacy, she said, the administration needs to focus on engaging younger Americans, especially millennials, the people aged 18 to 33. That generation is the largest and most diverse in history, she said, but it is also the most urban.
“Research also shows that this generation cares deeply about the planet and wants to make a difference in their careers,” Jewell said, “yet they have grown up being more disconnected from the natural world than ever before.”
A third of Interior’s workforce of 70,000 people is eligible to retire in the next five years, Jewell said. “What happens when we have a generation who has had little connection to our nation’s public lands, yet they’re suddenly in charge of taking care of them?” she asked.
She said the Interior Department plans to create 100,000 jobs and training opportunities over the next four years for young people, at a time when entry-level jobs have been severely affected by the sequester cuts, and many young people are entering a workforce where jobs are hard to find.
The new initiative will be funded by working with schools and communities, as well as corporate and nonprofit organizations, to raise the $20 million needed while the department faces budget pressures elsewhere.
In terms of Interior’s development efforts, Jewell reiterated the administration’s focus on developing renewable energy on public lands, and on developing “in the right ways and in the right places.”
She said a “balanced” approach is important in places like Alaska or the Bakken region of North Dakota, where a large amount of oil is available under federal lands.
Businesses targeting such resources “also want to be good stewards of the land,” she said, and the government plays an important role in overseeing development on its lands, especially when the methods used could be harmful in the long run.
“I also know that there’s nothing more frustrating than to be well into an investment and find your investment challenged,” she said.
Jewell was asked after the speech about the priorities for funding national parks. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., argued this week that Congress is spending too much money on low-priority parks while some of the most important ones are not being properly maintained.
“To make the simplistic correlation that putting money into our lands necessarily causes more in maintenance is just incorrect,” she said.
She cited land in the Tetons in Wyoming that is owned by the state, which she said will be developed if not bought by the Park Service, and which would not cost the Park Service any more money to maintain.
In her speech, Jewell said, “We will always take the long view, even when our budgets don’t.”