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Interior Pick Wins Praise, Cautious Responses From Lawmakers, Interest Groups

President Barack Obama’s surprise nomination of Sally Jewell, head of the outdoor recreation equipment cooperative REI, to lead the Interior Department is drawing a mix of praise and wait-and-see responses from lawmakers and interest groups.

With a diverse background that includes extensive business experience — including work in the oil and gas sector — along with strong conservation credentials, the 55-year-old Jewell would seem to hold appeal across the political spectrum.

Environmental groups were effusive in their support of the nominee, whom Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams called an “outstanding choice” to replace Ken Salazar as Interior Secretary.

The Western Energy Alliance, a trade group representing oil and gas developers that has been critical of Salazar, welcomed the nomination of Jewell, who began her career as a Mobil Oil engineer in Oklahoma and Colorado.

“Her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio,” the group’s president, Tim Wigley, said in a statement.

Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute and a frequent critic of Obama’s energy policies, said his group looks forward to learning how 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.”

Leading lawmakers similarly signaled they would take a “wait and see” approach to Jewell’s nomination.

“So many of the decisions made by the Interior secretary have a profound impact on Alaska, and other Western states,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement. The Alaska Republican is the ranking minority member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, both of which oversee Interior.

“The livelihoods of Americans living and working in the West rely on maintaining a real balance between conservation and economic opportunity,” Murkowski said. “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.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, expressed “some reservations” about Jewell’s nomination. He noted in a statement that Salazar’s 2010 announcement of a controversial “wild lands” management policy — ultimately shelved in the face of widespread GOP opposition — was made outside a Denver REI store.

“This is a public position, and having a public background would have been helpful,” he said.

The nomination of Jewell, a high-profile business executive with strong support among conservation groups, marks a departure from the recent tradition of naming Western political figures to lead the Cabinet department that manages millions of acres of public land.

Her confirmation would also bring another woman into the Cabinet. The administration has been criticized for a series of recent nominations of white men to key positions.

“I have a great job at REI today, but there is no role that compares to the call to serve my country as the secretary of the Interior,” Jewell said Wednesday after Obama formally announced her nomination.

Jewell is president and CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., a retailer with $2 billion in annual sales based in Kent, Wash. She spent 19 years in the commercial banking industry before joining REI, the nation’s largest consumer cooperative, with more than 100 stores.

She graduated from the University of Washington in 1978 with a degree in mechanical engineering. She serves on the boards of the National Parks Conservation Association and the Initiative for Global Development.

In nominating a businesswoman with her breadth of experience, Obama pointed to Jewell as evidence that oil and gas production and environmental stewardship do not have to be mutually exclusive.

“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” he said. “She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.”

Lauren Gardner and Pam Radtke Russell contributed to this report.

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