WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated outdoor business executive Sally Jewell to lead the Interior Department.
Obama said Jewell, president and chief executive at REI, has earned national recognition for her support of outdoor recreation and habitat conservation. He also noted her experience as an engineer in oil fields and her record of achievement and environmental stewardship at REI, which sells clothing and gear for outdoor use.
"She knows the link between conservation and good jobs. 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 and hand," Obama said at a White House ceremony.
At REI, Jewell "has shown that a company with more than $1 billion in sales can do the right thing for our planet," Obama said. Last year, REI donated nearly $4 million to protect trails and parks, and 20 percent of the electricity used in the company's stores comes from renewable sources.
Jewell, the first woman Obama has nominated for his Cabinet in his second term, would replace current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar if confirmed by the Senate. Salazar has held the post throughout Obama's first term. He announced last month that he would step down in March.
Jewell, 56, emerged as a frontrunner for the Interior post in recent days, edging out better-known Democrats such as former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. The Interior job traditionally has gone to politicians from Western states. Salazar was a Colorado senator before taking over at Interior in 2009.
Jewell donated $5,000 to Obama's re-election effort and has supported other Democrats, campaign finance records show.
The White House faced criticism that the new Cabinet lacked diversity after Obama tapped a string of white men for top posts, but Obama promised more diverse nominees were in the queue for other jobs.
Jewell's confirmation also would put a prominent representative from the business community in the president's Cabinet. REI is a $2 billion-a-year company and has been named by Fortune Magazine as one of the top 100 companies to work for.
Jewell was born in England, but moved to the Seattle area before age 4 and is a U.S. citizen.
In 2011, Jewell introduced Obama at a White House conference on the "America's Great Outdoors" initiative, noting that the $289 billion outdoor-recreation industry supports 6.5 million jobs. She also appeared at a 2009 White House event on health care.
Under Salazar, the Interior Department pushed renewable power such as solar and wind and oversaw a moratorium on offshore drilling after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The moratorium was lifted in October 2010, although offshore drilling operations did not begin for several more months.
The Interior Department manages more than 500 million acres in national parks and other public lands, and more than 1 billion acres offshore, overseeing energy, mining operations and recreation. The department also provides services to 566 federally recognized Indian tribes.
Jewell's nomination was hailed by conservation and business groups alike.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune called Jewell a champion in the effort to connect children with nature and said she has "a demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans - recreation, adventure, and enjoyment.
The Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and natural gas industry in the West, also welcomed Jewell's nomination.
"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," said Tim Wigley, the group's president.
Wigley said his group hopes Jewell will work to develop oil and gas on non-park, non-wilderness public lands.
Jewell's appointment comes as Democrats and environmental groups are urging Obama to step up efforts to conserve public lands in his second term.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Tuesday that Obama should adopt a principle in which every acre of public land that is leased to the oil and gas industry is matched by an acre permanently protected for conservation or recreation.
Over the past four years, more than 6 million acres of public lands have been leased for oil and gas, compared with 2.6 million acres permanently protected, according to U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Jewell, who is married with two grown children, was paid more than $2 million as REI's CEO in 2011. She contributed $5,000 to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee set up by Obama and the Democratic Party, according to federal election records. She has contributed to Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and a political action committee that supports Democrats.
Jewell also was on the board of directors of Avista Corp., a Spokane-based power utility, from 1997 through 2003. U.S. Securities and Exchange documents show that in her last full year as an Avista board member, Jewell held more than 15,600 shares in the utility and received $50,000 in director's fees.
In 2004, federal prosecutors charged that Avista played a role in a 2000 deal that allowed then-energy giant Enron to sell a $3 million turbine to the northwest utility firm. Prosecutors did not criminally charge Avista, but said the utility agreed to buy the turbine before a larger deal was completed - a move that aided Enron in hiding the turbine deal from its auditors.
Jewell was on Avista's audit and finance committee when the utility bought the turbine in 2000. Avista was not criminally charged in the Enron indictment and none of the utility's officials, including Jewell, were cited in the charges. Avista officials at the time denied any knowledge of Enron's internal moves.
Houston-based Enron collapsed in 2001 amid fraud and corruption charges.