Sally Jewell, the nation's new interior secretary, used the Minnesota River as a backdrop Tuesday to explain the Obama administration's ambitious conservation strategy and argue that protected wildlife refuges make an important contribution to the economy as well as the environment.

During a stop on her first tour as a Cabinet secretary, Jewell said the federal network of 561 National Wildlife Refuges contributes $2.4 billion to the nation's economy — and $80 million to Minnesota's — while supporting more than 35,000 jobs in recreation and related industries.

She should know — Jewell is a former CEO of REI, a national chain of outdoor clothing and gear stores.

"What's the value of conservation?" she said at news conference at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington, where in hiking pants and boots she looked every inch the fit mountain climber she is. "One way we can put a price tag on it is economic activity," she said.

Minnesota was the first stop on a national trip designed to highlight her priorities, announced in her first major speech last week in Washington D.C. She laid out a long-term conservation strategy designed to balance economic development of oil and gas and other resources with protection of natural resources, saying her agency will ensure that both are pursued during a period of climate change, tight budgets and increasing demands on land and water.

"There are some places in this country that are too special to develop," she said.

As secretary of the interior, she is in charge of one-fifth of the country's land, which includes national parks, wildlife refuges and other federally owned property.

It's increasingly important, she said, to manage conservation and wilderness protection on a landscape-size level. Now, the country is losing 24 acres per day in the prairies and wetlands of the upper midwest, primarily to agriculture.

She also pointed out that Congress has not protected "a single acre of land" since 2010, promising that if Congress doesn't, President Obama will through the exercise of his executive powers.

Those protected areas are also a powerful economic engine for local communities, Jewell said. The federal wildlife refuges attract more than 46 million visitors from around the world who support local restaurants, hotels and other businesses, according to a new analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It said that in 2011 the refuges contributed an average of $4.87 in economic output for every $1 in federal appropriations. The federal researchers examined visitor spending in four areas: food, lodging, transportation and other expenses. The national estimate was reached by extrapolating results for 92 refuges, including three in Minnesota, to the national refuge system as a whole.

In 2011 a total of 1.6 million people visited the federal refuges in Minnesota, generating 1,200 jobs and $11.4 million in taxes, she said.

Jewell also detailed another priority — using federally protected lands as a way to generate jobs for the generation just entering the workforce.

The group aged 18 to 33 numbers 3 million more than baby-boomers, she noted, but are looking for work during tight economic times. She said she wants to create 100,000 new jobs tied to federal lands in the next four years. This group is spending too much time indoors, she said, and losing a critical connection to the natural world.

And then she went outside where, surrounded by tall grasses, cameras and a gaggle of exhilarated children, she helped a group of students who were at the refuge to learn about prairie seeds.