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.