Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says Congress needs to do more than talk when it comes to national parks, forests and other public lands.
In her first major address since taking office this spring, Jewell called on Congress to push for full funding for parks and other public lands in the federal budget.
"The real test of whether you support conservation is not what you say in a press conference when the cameras are rolling, but whether you fight for it in the budget conference," Jewell said Thursday.
Jewell, the former head of outdoor retailer REI, took over in April as the nation's chief natural resources steward. Interior manages more than 500 million acres in national parks and other public lands — 20 percent of the nation's total lands. The department oversees development of about 20 percent of U.S energy supplies, as well as recreation and hunting and other services.
Still reeling from what she called an "absurd, wasteful" government shutdown, Jewell said lawmakers should consider what conservation legacy they will leave for the next 50 or 100 years.
"We owe it to future generations to act," she said, adding that "short-sighted funding and partisan gridlock" were unacceptable.
If Congress does not act to protect mountains, rivers and forests from development, President Barack Obama will use his executive authority to do so, Jewell said. Obama designated five new national monuments earlier this year and will not hesitate to protect historic or ecologically significant sites, she said.
"There's no question that if Congress doesn't act, we will act," Jewell said.
During the 16-day government shutdown, national parks became a political symbol as lawmakers bickered over who was to blame for closing the Grand Canyon and other national landmarks.
Republicans criticized the Obama administration for closing access to the open-air World War II Memorial on the National Mall after the government closed on Oct. 1. A crowd that included Republican lawmakers converged on the memorial at one point, pushing past barriers to protest the site's closure.
Jewell defended placement of barricades at the World War II Memorial and other sites, saying that all but a dozen National Park Service employees who work at the National Mall had been furloughed. The Park Service allowed veterans and their families to visit the memorial, she said.
Jewell said there was "absolutely no political motive" in the shutdown of the 401 national park units, adding that Park Service workers and others in the Interior Department followed federal law requiring that employees limit their actions to those that protect life and property.
"We did the best we could," she said.
Jewell said the Interior Department is working to strengthen landscape-level planning efforts to ensure balanced development on public lands. She announced a strategy aimed at ensuring that energy projects include steps to mitigate a range of environmental impacts, from endangered species to climate change. The policy will use science and technology to advance conservation while allowing development to continue, she said.
"We know it doesn't have to be an either-or," Jewell said. The department has set a goal of 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020. That's enough to power more than 5 million homes or businesses.
With about a third of Interior's 70,000 workers eligible to retire within five years, the department faces an urgent need for new generation of wildlife biologists, park rangers, scientists and other professionals, Jewell said.
"What happens when a generation who has little connection to our nation's public lands is suddenly in charge of taking care of them?" she asked.
Jewell laid out what she called ambitious goals to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for more than 10 million young people and 100,000 work and training opportunities in the next four years.
The department will work with businesses and non-profit organizations to raise up to $20 million in private funds to support those goals, Jewell said.