U.S. interior secretary discusses Thompson Divide, vision for public lands

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell outlined plans to get kids connected to the outdoors rather than electronic gardets during an Aspen Institute presentation Friday evening.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell pumped up an Aspen audience Friday with her vision to get children connected to the outdoors rather than smartphones and tablets.

Jewell also made it abundantly clear that she is well aware of the Roaring Fork Valley’s efforts to protect Thompson Divide from gas drilling.

A near-capacity crowd in Paepcke Auditorium listened to the former president and CEO of REI, the outdoor clothing and outfitting cooperative, express her concern that the American public is out of touch with the outdoors as the population gets more urban, diverse and younger. Jewell oversees the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management among many agencies wrapped under the Department of the Interior.

She said a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation determined in 2002 that children spent about 47 hours per week in front of some type of screen — television, computer or phone. By 2011, an updated study showed the number had increased to 56 hours per week.

“We are in the ‘forever’ business and we don’t even have a budget that lasts one year.”Interior secretary Sally Jewell

Meanwhile, unstructured playtime outdoors has dropped to just 30 minutes per week.

“There is a growing lack of familiarity and comfort with the outdoors,” Jewell said.

She drew applause when she outlined a program to offer every fourth grader in the U.S. a free pass for their families for one year to every national park in the country.

In addition, she’s hustling for private-sector dollars for a program to hire 100,000 “young people” to work on public lands on projects such as building trails and eradicating weeds and enlisting 1 million volunteers to assist.

“We’re well on our way,” Jewell said.

Conserving the most outstanding lands and undertaking sustainable yield of resources from others are among her key missions. Congress makes that difficult when it doesn’t assure a full annual budget, she said.

“We are in the ‘forever’ business, and we don’t even have a budget that lasts one year,” Jewell said.

She also made it clear that she is undaunted by trying to get diverse user groups, from environmentalists to the oil industry and ranchers to mountain bikers, to agree on public land-management issues.

That opened the door for Pitkin County Commissioners George Newman and Rachel Richards to ask questions about Thompson Divide following Jewell’s presentation. Thompson Divide is a vast area southwest of Carbondale. The U.S. Forest Service has said no more lands will be offered for lease there. Gas companies already hold some leases.

Newman said conserving unspoiled lands is key to the Roaring Fork Valley economy. Jewell responded by saying Thompson Divide “is on my radar, it’s on the governor’s radar, it’s on the radar of elected officials.”

She said she was talking later Friday evening with county commissioners from Garfield County and other areas of northwest Colorado.

Richards asked bluntly if Jewell will assure that “illegally issued leases” will be withdrawn in Thompson Divide. Jewell said she wasn’t sure leases were illegally granted by the Bureau of Land Management, but she stressed that the interior department will take local input seriously on the issue.

“We do listen, and we do readjust our plans,” Jewell told Richards.