Secretary of Interior connected to Northwest

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You may not know Sally Jewell by name, but I guarantee you’ve had some interaction with her department. Sally Jewell is the current U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

She is also the speaker for Whitman College’s 2014 Commencement on May 25. Considering Walla Walla’s location and easy access to the natural resources of the Pacific Northwest and Whitman’s love for everything active and outdoors, it is challenging to think of a better choice.

Jewell’s Department of the Interior has many bureaus and offices significant to the people and resources of our Pacific Northwest.

One agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, administers and manages the land of more than 300 Native Americans reservations with 29 in Washington and seven and Oregon. The Colville and Yakama reservations alone cover more than 2.5 million acres.

The resources on these reservations are important not only for the tribes but also for others. For example, water from the Blue Mountains flows downstream through the nearby Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (172,882 acres) to irrigators and to the Columbia River to help salmon, steelhead, and lamprey migrate upstream.

The Bureau of Land Management designated federal acreage at the 35-square-mile Juniper Dunes as wilderness in 1984; a fence separates the wilderness from an off-road vehicle park on the Tri-Cities side of the dune field. Open to the public in March, April and May, Juniper Dunes is a popular place to hike for participants in Whitman’s Outdoor Program and to study wind processes for field trips by Whitman’s geology department and the Walla Walla Community College Quest program.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has oversight of our offshore resources, particularly fossil fuels. For example, this agency is charged with reducing the potential for oil spills and coordinating activities when an oil spill occurs.

We are familiar with the National Park Service because of our magnificent national parks in the Pacific Northwest: Olympic, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake. The agency also supervises places like Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, and John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and has named Wallula Gap a National Natural landmark.

Our federal properties managed by the NPS are for residents, tourists, and our students to enjoy: watching wildlife, taking photographs, hiking and mountaineering, learning history, and studying rocks, rivers, waves and glaciers.

The Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement is charged with protecting people and the environment from surface coal mining operations. While the Bureau of Mines was closed in 1995, its responsibilities were transferred to other government agencies.

Today, the OSRME attempts to balance domestic coal production with environmental factors. When mining is finished, OSRME supervises reclaiming and restoring the land to beneficial use.

For example, Washington’s Centralia Coal Mine was shut down in 2006 and is being reforested.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages more than 550 National Wildlife Refuges (41 in Washington and Oregon). The nearest to Walla Walla is McNary National Wildlife Refuge, with units at Burbank, the mouth of the Walla Walla River and Juniper Canyon.

This wildlife refuge is an important stop for birds flying between the lakes of the basin and range to the south and the channeled scablands to the north.

Another responsibility of the USFWS is dealing with endangered species, like the northern spotted owl.

In late April, Jewell announced a partnership to restore kokanee salmon to the Lake Sammamish watershed and to connect Seattle-area people to the outdoors.

I personally interacted with one of Jewell’s departments, the U.S. Geological Survey, for the first time in 1968 when it provided air photo coverage of the Olympic Peninsula so I could help with a mapping project.

The Olympic Mountains had been a prospect for manganese needed for World War II. The 1960s were a particularly exciting time for geologists because of mounting evidence that continents and sea floor move.

Currently, I work with the USGS on understanding young faults in Western Washington, searching for answers to questions like: “How are they related to the magnitude 9-plus earthquakes released from the subduction zone just offshore that extends from southern British Columbia to northern California?”

Supervising eight important federal agencies is an enormous responsibility, and it’s not without controversy.

For example, The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is often held responsible for many actual and potential problems and resources along our coast: offshore drilling for oil and gas; alternative energy from wind, waves, etc.; and coastal erosion, which will increase with sea level rise.

Currently, a 30-megawatt project with floating wind turbines is proposed off Coos Bay.

The Bureau of Reclamation, established 112 years ago, is famous for dams and related electricity and water systems in western United States. The bureau completed Grand Coulee Dam in 1941, and in 1975 was asked to construct a dam on the Touchet River just upstream of Dayton.

When Idaho’s Teton Dam, designed by the bureau, failed in 1976, killing 11 people and causing an economic loss of perhaps $1 billion, the citizens of Columbia and Walla Walla counties rejected the Dayton Dam.

Currently, the bureau is estimating drought and flood hazards expected from climate change.

The land area is huge; the mineral and wildlife resources are critical; and these federal agencies are led by someone who could be anyone’s hero: Sally Jewell.

Educated as a petroleum engineer, Jewell is also successful in the outdoors, climbing Antarctica’s highest peak, the Vinson Massif (16,050 feet); in business, as CEO of REI; and now in government, as Secretary of the Interior.

The greater Walla Walla community, especially Whitman seniors and their families, are fortunate to have her visit.

Bob Carson, who joined the faculty at Whitman College in 1975, teaches geology and environmental studies.

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