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Washington • Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Thursday there was "absolutely no political motive" in erecting barriers around some of Washington's most iconic monuments during the government shutdown despite Republican critics who say the White House wanted to make the closure sting more for Americans.
"The people of the National Park Service did not want to barricade the monuments, but the monuments don't take care of themselves," Jewell said at the National Press Club. "The barricades protect the resources, and we worked as best as we could" to accommodate groups, like veterans' Honor Flights, who came to Washington during the shutdown to visit memorials.
Jewell, in her first public remarks since the 16-day partial government closure, said that federal law prohibited her from employing park rangers to staff the monuments or national parks, both of which became the public face of the shutdown when Republican members of Congress helped push through the barriers around the World War II Memorial for veterans to visit.
In wide-ranging remarks, Jewell also said members of Congress who say the Interior Department can repay states for re-opening national parks during the shutdown are spreading "misinformation," and that in the 1995-96 shutdown, the department didn't send a check to states, either.
"We had to do some digging in historical records to understand that, but our records are going to be much more helpful should this crazy thing ever happen again," she said.
Pressed on a new report by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., arguing that the National Park Service shouldn't buy new tracts of land when it has a burgeoning maintenance backlog on sites it already owns, Jewell said that was a "common refrain" from critics.
"I will say that these are the same people that squeeze our budget, so we end up with a larger maintenance backlog," Jewell said. "You can solve the maintenance backlog by taking care of the maintenance backlog; it's not that complicated. As a business person that's what we did on a regular basis; that's what kept the economy going."
Jewell called on Congress to pass a regular budget instead of temporary, stopgap measures, and she said the "real test" of supporting conservation isn't when the cameras are rolling but when "you fight for it in budget conferences."
The Interior secretary said that Congress should act to preserve some treasured landscapes supported by local communities but that President Barack Obama would step in and use the Antiquities Act, which gives him unilateral power to name monuments if the legislative branch doesn't. Jewell added that controversial monuments are not a priority.
"I guess I haven't seen anything yet where everybody agrees on everything, but certainly where there is a groundswell of support we will focus our energies," she said. "We won't be focusing our energies where there is a tremendous amount of conflict."
In her first major policy speech, Jewell also announced a new secretarial order to ensure balanced development on public lands that includes mitigation of disturbed lands as part of the permitting process.
"Today we have an unprecedented opportunity using science and technology to create a better understanding of landscapes than ever before to advance important conservation goals and achieve our development objectives," Jewell said. "We know it doesn't have to be an either/or."
The secretary also outlined a four-year plan to develop partnerships in 50 American cities to help educate millions of grade-school students about outdoor recreation and conservation. As part of that goal, Jewell wants to provide 100,000 work and training opportunities for youth volunteers.
"For the health of our economy and our public lands, it's critical that we work now to establish meaningful and deep connections between young people from every background and every community and the great outdoors," Jewell said.
Her comments were well received by the environmental community.
"What I heard today was Secretary Jewell echoing Westerners everywhere who want greater balance between energy development and conservation of our public lands," said Western Values Project Director Ross Lane. "We're excited by what she said and her leadership is definitely needed to deliver the kind of results and change that Western communities expect."
Jordan Bailey contributed to this report.
Watch The Salt Lake Tribune's Thomas Burr moderate the National Press Club luncheon with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/ParksandP