Former Interior chief Jewell: Nature Conservancy needs to be ‘stabilized’
Sally Jewell, the former Obama administration Interior secretary who was tapped to run The Nature Conservancy, said she is playing “the long game” to restore morale at the green group that has been rattled by reports of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct.
The former CEO of outdoor-gear retailer REI also said she did not expect any new bombshells from its internal investigation into the problems that have triggered a shakeup at the top levels of the world’s largest environmental organization.
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In an interview Tuesday with POLITICO after being named the interim CEO, Jewell acknowledged that The Nature Conservancy was in a “transition” with four of its top executives either already gone or on their way out after the internal investigation. Those ousted include CEO Mark Tercek, who announced his resignation Friday. The probe, first reported by POLITICO, found women believed it was difficult to thrive at the organization and that complaints about misbehavior went unheeded.
“The organization has had a lot of talented people and none of us are perfect and we all have our time. But I don’t anticipate more relating to this report to come forward,” Jewell said. “I don’t expect anything else.”
In addition to Tercek’s impending departure, President Brian McPeek stepped aside May 31. His exit came just days after Tercek informed staff that Mark Burget, who led North American operations, and Kacky Andrews, who headed global programs, had left the organization. The Nature Conservancy also parted ways with Luis Solórzano, who led its Caribbean program, amid allegations of harassment and misconduct reported by POLITICO.
“This is an organization that doesn’t need to be shaken up. This is an organization that needs to be stabilized, that needs to be appreciated, that needs to be valued, that has gone through an incredible amount of leadership change in a very short period of time,” Jewell said. “So I am focused on that. So I am focused on providing support and guidance and reassurance and a shoulder to cry on if that’s what they need.”
Jewell, who has been on the board of The Nature Conservancy since May 2018, will officially take the organization’s helm Sept. 3. She plans to reach out to donors, local chapter leaders, trustees and leadership in an effort to put it on better footing. The organization has allies on both sides of the aisle in Congress — its volunteers will fan out on Wednesday to press both Republican and Democratic offices on conservation issues — and has partnerships with national governments and some of the world’s most recognizable multinational corporations.
Jewell said her experience at REI will help her usher in a more productive, equitable and supportive culture. She also said her experience handling a sexual harassment scandal at the National Park Service while she was Interior secretary gave her insight in how establishing better systems can improve work environments by making people feel safer coming forward with complaints.
“I’m optimistic that this is now on everybody’s radar. And I also know from prior experience that when you create a safer environment for people to come forward, sometimes the floodgates open,” Jewell said. “And I would expect that to come in this organization as well, and that may be in part what’s happened recently.”
Getting a handle on the sprawling organization, which includes 3,500 employees across 72 countries and took in $1.3 billion in revenue last year, is no small task. But it’s one Jewell’s allies feel she can accomplish.
“Sally is terrific,” former Obama Environmental Protection Agency EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol. “She not just sort of knows the business, she knows how to manage the business. So I’m sure she’ll bring a ray of sunshine and I look forward to it.”
Jewell said the board of directors has explored bringing in an outside party to reshape The Nature Conservancy’s internal processes, and it would release more details in time. She also thanked Tercek for his work, particularly in drawing corporate backers to address environmental issues as “an opportunity.”
Asked whether more personnel changes were coming, Jewell said, “I am not aware of any actions that are contemplated beyond some of the things that have happened.”
Jewell, who is in Washington for The Nature Conservancy’s annual volunteer summit this week, said people have told her they’re proud to work for the organization and want to see institutional changes “so they can thrive.”
“One of the challenges of this whole process is there has been an awful lot of rumor,” Jewell said. She added that the report identified employees didn’t feel comfortable coming forward with complaints and that her “focus is really on moving the organization forward and it really is on learning from the lessons in that report.”
Alex Guillen contributed to this report.