SALT LAKE CITY – Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made a pitch Wednesday for a privately funded youth conservation corps and sought donations for the effort from executives at an outdoor-gear trade show.
Jewell said budget paralysis in Washington has forced her to seek help from the private sector. As she walked the showroom floor of the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, she asked major players for money to put 100,000 youths to work on public lands.
“We’re not waiting for Congress to act,” said Jewell, a businesswoman who headed retailer Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI, for more than a decade before joining President Barack Obama’s cabinet last year. “We want to get started this spring.”
Jewell said the effort has already received $1 million from clothing retailer American Eagle Outfitters toward its goal of $20 million.
Jewell delivered a breakfast speech to the Outdoor Industry Association, a group of companies ranging from industry giant Patagonia and Salt Lake City-based equipment maker Black Diamond Inc. to tiny Ruffwear, a maker of performance dog gear in Bend, Ore.
“We’re happy to help,” said Nicholas Brayton, president of Woolrich, a maker of outdoor clothing since 1830.
Jewell was on familiar ground as she hugged industry friends at the trade show, where manufacturers display products and take orders from retailers. About 22,000 people were in Salt Lake City for the show that runs through Saturday.
“My sense is Sally is going to have tremendous support from the outdoor industry,” said Topher Gaylord, president of Richmond, Calif.-based Mountain Hardwear. “Youth participation is at the core of our business. We absolutely want to find a way to support her initiatives.”
Executives appreciate Jewell’s direct and sometimes blunt style, said Todd Spaletto, president of The North Face, best known for its Gore-Tex jackets and geodesic tents.
The company already funds organizations that get children outdoors, and “we’re trying to tie all this together with Sally’s initiative,” Spaletto said.
In her speech, Jewell lamented legislative gridlock in Washington. She became interior secretary just as forced budget cuts took hold and delayed the department’s efforts to make repairs and complete other projects at national parks.
“I walked in right when sequestration hit,” Jewell said. “It’s a pretty tough situation.”
She also spoke about a disconnect between a generation of young, technology-loving adults and nature. She brought along Brandon Benton, a crew leader for the San Francisco-area Conservation Corps North Bay, who said that program turned around his life.
“I was exposed to a world unknown to me — the natural world,” said Benton, 24, of Santa Rosa, Calif. “You don’t always have to be in your house, on social media. The natural world is free and beautiful.”
The event also drew an impersonator of President Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of conservation. Period actor Adam “TR” Lindquist said he was working for a citizens’ federation called Environment America to urge the secretary to protect more lands.
Lindquist bears an uncanny resemblance to Roosevelt with his moustache and custom beaver-fur hat.
He wasn’t allowed to make a stage appearance with Jewell but said he did have a polite chat with her. Lindquist said the secretary is a Roosevelt fan and recognized him from previous events.