51st U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reflect on America’s wild spaces

Sally Jewell truly believes the outdoors unlocks our curiosity. For her, that curiosity began as a teenager when she climbed an unerupted Mount St. Helens. America’s wild spaces continue to inspire her to this day.

Taking the lectern at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, July 5, in the Amphitheater, she will consider the importance of America’s public lands: to heal and fuel the nation’s soul, to find comfort and inspiration in a reconnection with the wild, and to discover one’s inherent curiosity. She hopes that her lecture will inspire all her listeners to seek more enjoyment on America’s public lands.

“I think nature was a critical element in making me a curious person,” Jewell said, “and that curiosity has been instrumental in my whole career and remains an asset that keeps me engaged and helps me understand how it can be part of the solution.” 

Continuing the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Two’s theme of  “The Wild: Reconnecting with Our Natural World,” Jewell — businesswoman, conservationist and lifelong mountaineer — has many insights to share.

Jewell will address what she describes as a growing disconnect between people and nature: how with urbanization and large-scale development, landscapes once “taken for granted” are no longer accessible.

“I strongly believe that human beings are part of nature, and they need nature to thrive,” Jewell said, noting how the pandemic has shone a spotlight on America’s search for outdoor spaces to find respite, relaxation, “a place that feels safe, a place to breathe.”

From 2013 to 2017, Jewell served as the 51st United States Secretary of the Interior, before which she was chief executive officer of outdoor retailer REI. 

During Jewell’s tenure with REI, she recognized that supporting open-air recreation required both a “healthy outdoors that’s available” and authenticity to their mission of “connecting people to nature.” At that time, the company led initiatives to get more young people to participate in the outdoors and committed to not selling outdoor-themed video games.

Jewell took knowledge gained at REI and applied it during her time with the U.S. Department of Interior, creating what she called a “continuum of engagement” for youth to explore nature and find their curiosity. 

In her lecture today, she will discuss the continuum’s components, which include taking kids from playing in the outdoors to learning in the outdoors, from “the best teacher, Mother Nature” in “the classroom with no walls.” She hopes that through these efforts to engage young people, their eyes will be opened to “opportunities to be stewards of these landscapes.” 

Spending time exploring America’s public lands is especially important, Jewell said, because people cannot advocate for nature’s conservation and preservation if they haven’t been exposed to it.

“Advocacy for the natural world is going to be essential to all of our health long term,” Jewell said. 

She acknowledges, however, that with each generation, engaging youth with the natural world and allowing them to kindle their curiosity becomes more and more difficult. Evolving expectations for young people, changing cultures and increasing distractions continue to further alienate people from nature. 

“It’s tough with the pull of electronics, in particular, that tend to disconnect us from nature, and yet don’t enable us to become our whole selves in the way that I think we need for our health and well-being,” Jewell said. 

She plans to share some of her journey as an immigrant from London to the United States, beginning a lifelong connection with nature in the Pacific Northwest. 

“It’s part of (my) DNA,” Jewell said. “Access to the outdoors and trips that I did as a child were hugely influential in instilling curiosity and grounding me out in Mother Nature.” 

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The author Arden Ryan

Summer 2022 marks Arden’s sixth season working for the Daily. A longtime Chautauquan, he is excited to continue supervising the Daily’s newsies. Following his editorial debut last season, Arden plans to write more articles this summer. He is an incoming freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, and he is interested in studying English and international relations. If he’s not around the Daily office, Arden can be found reading, swimming or sailing.