Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell Explains Why Preserving Alaska’s Wildness Is Essential

A former petroleum engineer, Jewell recognizes that balance is key to preserving Alaska for future generations

Secretary Sally Jewell Tami Heilemann

Sally Jewell has been visiting Alaska since the 1970s, as a tourist, engineer, banker, retailer, and most recently, Secretary of the Interior. She is the second woman to hold the position—managing the country’s federal lands, natural resources, and cultural heritage—a role she assumed in 2013. From her federal office in Washington, the former president and CEO of REI discussed with Smithsonian Journeys associate editor Sasha Ingber how Alaska is on the front lines of climate change, what some Anchorage students are doing to learn about Native cultures, and why preserving wildness is so important for future generations. An excerpt was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Smithsonian Journeys magazine.

How many times have you been to Alaska?

I’ve been to Alaska dozens of times in various roles over the last 40 years, including as a petroleum engineer, commercial banker, outdoor retailer, and tourist. In my capacity as secretary, I’ve made four official visits to Alaska, first in 2013 to meet with local leaders from the North Slope to Anchorage to the Aleutians, including the communities of Barrow, Kaktovik, King Cove, and Cold Bay, and to visit just a few of the state’s extraordinary public lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Second, on a trip to the Arctic Ocean hosted by the U.S. Navy to learn more about national security and research on changing Arctic ice conditions.

In February of 2015 I traveled to northwest Alaska to the regional hub of Kotzebue and the Alaska Native village of Kivalina, a coastal community facing imminent threats from sea level rise and climate change. I also spoke before the Alaska Federation of Natives to discuss the importance of subsistence rights, self-determination, and other issues. And last summer I joined the president, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and stakeholders from around the world in Anchorage at the “Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience” to highlight how we’re collectively addressing climate change in the Arctic.

What is one thing you found surprising?

One of the most surprising observations from my travels is how clear the effects of climate change are across the Last Frontier, and how much change residents of these communities have witnessed over their lifetimes. When I visited Kivalina, a small community in northwest Alaska threatened by coastal erosion, I could hear the fear in people’s voices about losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their history. Hunters recounted changes in the migration patterns of animals necessary for their food and culture, notably whale and caribou. Gatherers noted the impact on berries and other subsistence foods from permafrost melting, and timing differences between plants and their traditional pollinators. For Alaska Natives—and many other coastal communities across our country—climate change isn't a distant threat. It has real and immediate impacts on daily life. It’s clear that we must take continued, concerted action to combat climate change, especially in making our communities more resilient in the face of threats, using natural systems to protect communities.

Are you drawn to a specific place, culture, or people in Alaska? Why?

Alaska is truly a special place for its wildness, natural beauty, and rich cultural heritage. It serves as home to some of the most diverse wildlife in the world, including large mammals such as caribou; brown, grizzly, polar, and black bears; gray wolves; and muskoxen. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge alone supports more than 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species, and 42 species of fish. Lagoons, beaches, salt marshes, tundra, and forests make up this remote and undisturbed wild area that spans five distinct ecological regions. Visiting the refuge is a unique experience, where landscapes remain wild and nature is allowed to achieve its own balance, like the flocks of snow geese schooling across the landscape of the coastal plain, or the caribou migration—reminiscent of the buffalo herds that once roamed the Great Plains of the lower 48. Alaska reminds us of the gifts of Mother Nature and the opportunity we still have to live in harmony with them for future generations.

The state is home to diverse and enduring Alaska Native cultures and traditions that reflect a deep connection to the land and the abundance of wildlife and plants unique to each region. I have been deeply moved in my conversations with Alaska Natives who are working hard to sustain their heritage, while providing a bright future for their children in a modern world. Many of these communities are on the front lines of climate change and live with very real impacts on food security, personal safety, infrastructure, and economic development. We have an opportunity and obligation to work alongside threatened Native villages and other vulnerable communities in developing climate adaptation and resilience strategies that can help them thrive in the future.

Tell us about one of your most memorable experiences in the Alaska. What made it special?

At the opening of the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic, I had the opportunity to meet some extraordinary young Alaskans who are taking important steps to make a meaningful impact on the future of their communities. I had the privilege of meeting James Chilcote, Haley Fischer, Barae Hirsch, Griffin Plush, and Byron Nicholai, who are the next generation of conservation and community leaders—young Arctic stewards of their cultures, and our lands and resources, who we must invest in now to help us take action against a changing climate.

I learned a lot about these young students’ lives in Alaska and their plans for the future. We discussed the challenges of building awareness of the Arctic way of life. Even within Alaska, many young people from Alaska’s largest urban areas, like Anchorage, have never had the opportunity to engage with other youth from rural Alaska or been to a village or an Alaska Native community. They know little about how the rapidly changing environment in rural areas is affecting daily life and culture. Over the course of the next year these inspiring young ambassadors will embark on a series of field expeditions, science seminars, and engagements with Alaska Native elders. They will learn more about Arctic communities, cultures, and the environment, as well as their cultural and spiritual identity—all while sharing the same with others.

You have a unique perspective, from being a petroleum engineer to leading REI to climbing the tallest mountain in Antarctica to serving as secretary of the interior. How do you balance the competing interests of Alaska’s public lands—the interests of conservationists, locals, Natives, tourists, and gas and oil developers?

Alaska has incredible natural resources—oil and gas, fisheries, minerals, forests, wetlands, watersheds, wildlife, and diverse public lands. All bring value in different ways—sustainable and nonsustainable, tangible and intangible. As an engineer, I understand the economic benefits and environmental consequences of extracting nonrenewable natural resources. This has helped me recognize the importance of safe and responsible development, including a recognition that development is not appropriate everywhere resources are present. Using the best available science and engaging communities to understand the risks and benefits of development are important in striking the right balance between conservation and development.

As an outdoor enthusiast and retailer, I recognize that tourism and outdoor recreation are important economic engines, particularly in places with intact natural areas, like public lands in Alaska. Immersing ourselves in the natural world also brings intangible benefits to our health and well-being while deepening our understanding of the importance of nature. Facilitating responsible and sustainable tourism is important to the health of rural communities as well as the visitors who are renewed by their experiences.

My career reflects the complexity we face as human beings, living in harmony with the land and nature while also needing its resources to support our economy. Educating ourselves on the trade-offs we must make in our use of resources, and being honest about the consequences of their use, will be essential in making balanced decisions. At the end of the day, our decisions should be guided by the world we want to leave to future generations.

I believe that some places are too special to develop, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If we don't put the value of these public lands on the radar for their importance to our health and our well-being, we won't have a planet that's worth living on long term. We can achieve balanced development and conservation with the right approach—understanding our landscapes, engaging communities, using the best available science to guide our decisions, expediting development in areas with low conflict, stopping development in areas that are too special to develop, and continuing to learn from our experiences to make smarter decisions for the future.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.