Meet the (Likely) Next Interior Secretary: David Bernhardt

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On Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, President Donald Trump announced via tweet his highly anticipated nomination for Ryan Zinke’s replacement as secretary of the Department of the Interior: David Bernhardt, 49. If you like to play outdoors, you want to stay informed about who is running the Interior Department—the secretary is the head honcho of U.S. public lands. Ahead of his Senate confirmation hearing, here’s what you need to know about Bernhardt, the role of interior secretary and how the outdoor industry is reacting.

What experience would David Bernhardt bring to the table?

The halls of the Interior Department aren’t new to Bernhardt; in total, he’s spent around a decade serving the agency. Most recently, Bernhardt assumed the role of acting secretary in January after former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned in December 2018 amid government ethics investigations.

In the simplest terms, Bernhardt is a lawyer and lobbyist. After graduating from the University of Northern Colorado in 1990 and the George Washington University National Law Center in 1994, his career began in his home state, Colorado, where he worked in politics. He first worked for then Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) as a rules committee associate/legal counsel, then moved on to join the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Bernhardt’s tenure in the Interior Department started in 2001, and during his early years, he held roles including deputy solicitor, deputy chief of staff and counselor to the secretary, and director of congressional and legislative affairs and counselor to the secretary. In November 2005, President George W. Bush nominated Bernhardt to serve as solicitor of the interior—a position to which he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. The Office of the Solicitor performs legal work for the department, and the solicitor, the lead attorney in the office, is also the principal adviser to the interior secretary, according to the Interior Department.

Bernhardt served as solicitor until 2009, when he rejoined Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and eventually became chairman of the firm’s natural resources law practice. His legal client list has included the Independent Petroleum Association of America, Rosemont Copper Co. and Halliburton, according to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. Bernhardt was also a registered lobbyist for the nation’s largest agricultural water district, California’s Westland Water District.

Following President Trump’s election in November 2016, Bernhardt withdrew his official lobbyist registration, though he remained a consultant to the Westlands Water District through 2017, according to E&E News. He served on the president’s transition team through the inauguration.

Until somewhat recently, Bernhardt served on the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries (2012 - 2016) and the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability board of directors (2012 - 2017), public financial disclosure documents show.

In April 2017, President Trump nominated Bernhardt to be deputy secretary of the Interior Department. His nomination was met with both support and criticism. For instance, according to E&E News, Bernhardt received support from the Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable, which at the time stated, “We have found him responsive, intelligent and committed to cooperation among government agencies at all levels and the recreation community's private sector.” Among those opposed, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), then ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, expressed that she was “gravely concerned about Mr. Bernhardt’s record of working on behalf of corporations at the expense of the environment.” His nomination ultimately passed the Senate 53-43, and he was sworn into office in August 2017.

In his personal life, Bernhardt is an angler and hunter.

What impact has Bernhardt had on the Interior Department since 2017?

Since rejoining the department in 2017, Bernhardt has taken on many initiatives while keeping a relatively low public profile—until this recent nomination. His previous work has included rescinding climate change and mitigation policies, and supporting the administration’s decision to overhaul protections in the Endangered Species Act, which he outlined in this Washington Post Op-Ed. He also implemented length restrictions on National Environmental Policy Act environmental impact reports. Since President Trump took office, oil and gas leasing on public lands has “generated $360 million, an almost 90 percent increase from 2016,” according to NPR.

During the recent government shutdown, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which falls under Bernhardt's purview, allowed for a portion of its nearly 2,300 non-furloughed employees to continue some energy, minerals and grazing activities, according to BLM’s contingency plan. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) penned a letter to Bernhardt, questioning the department’s reported actions in moving forward on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite reduced staff and the impact on the public comment process due to the shutdown.

Bernhardt also authorized the National Park Service to use entrance fees to fund maintenance and other services during the shutdown in order to keep the parks open to the public. The decision was met with criticism by some.

“Entrance fees are supposed to be used to enhance the visitor experience or to open campgrounds. They are not supposed to be used for operations,” Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), previously told the Co-op Journal.

How does the confirmation process work?

As with any potential member of a president’s cabinet, it all starts with intent to nominate. This is the part where President Trump announces his decision to nominate Bernhardt as the next interior secretary. He already did so, via tweet.

Next, the process leaves social media and becomes formalized through paperwork sent by the White House to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. This makes the nomination official. Once the nomination process is officially set in motion, Bernhardt will be vetted by committee members and testify at a hearing in front of the entire committee.

After the hearing with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and assuming a positive endorsement, the process moves to a full Senate floor vote. Bernhardt would need to secure a majority vote to be approved, which is likely due to the current 53-47 Republican majority in the Senate. Finally, if approved, Bernhardt would be sworn in as the next interior secretary.

What government agencies does the interior secretary oversee and what public lands are they tasked with stewarding?

If confirmed, David Bernhardt would lead the Interior Department in overseeing agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some 245 million acres of public lands are in the hands of the department—about 20 percent of the nation’s lands. That’s “roughly 1 out of every 5 acres in the United States,” according to NPR. In terms of workforce, the department oversees more than 70,000 employees.

As the lead agency tasked with conserving and managing extensive federal lands for the “benefit and enjoyment of the American people,” the department can play a major role in sustaining the country’s recreation traditions and in assuring opportunities to enjoy nature as the population grows.

During his May 2017 confirmation hearing, the then deputy secretary nominee received several questions regarding public lands and recreation from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. When asked how he would address the inequality in access to public lands, Bernhardt stated that “public lands should be available for the enjoyment of all. If confirmed, I look forward to working with the secretary to increase recreational access to public lands.”

In addition to stewarding national parks, wildlife refuges and more, Bernhardt would be responsible for the development of conventional and renewable energy supplies on public lands and waters. Other duties include upholding relationships with 573 federally recognized tribal entities, managing water in 17 Western states, and appointing the National Park Foundation board.

Here’s a full list of all 10 bureaus managed by the Interior Department:

  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Indian Education
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement
  • National Park Service
  • Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey

How is the outdoor industry reacting to Bernhardt’s nomination?

Outdoor industry opinions about Bernhardt run the full spectrum. The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) shared a statement from President and CEO Whit Fosburgh, who said TRCP “worked closely with Mr. Bernhardt in his roles as deputy secretary and acting secretary, and we have found him to be accessible, fair, and true to his word.”

The Outdoor Industry Association’s position prioritizes the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy and hopes Bernhardt will “identify smart, balanced ways to protect and manage our public lands and waters.”

For Outdoor Recreation Roundtable Executive Director Jess Wahl, the onus is on the industry to guide Bernhardt toward understanding the outdoor community’s priorities. “It is important for the outdoor recreation community to reach out and educate any new administration official on issues important to our member businesses and customers. Recreation is one of the many activities the Interior Department manages, so we need to show up when we can to discuss just how critical recreation is to introducing people to the outdoors, health, jobs and the economy,” Wahl said.

Outdoor Alliance has approached the nomination with a cautiously concerned outlook. “As a former oil and gas lobbyist, David Bernhardt might be a bit more oriented toward resource extraction than conserving and protecting public lands,” said Adam Cramer, Outdoor Alliance executive director.

With two articles on the topic (here and here), The Wilderness Society (TWS) has a strong opposition to Bernhardt’s nomination. TWS President Jamie Williams stated that “at the helm of interior, Bernhardt would further jeopardize our climate and communities across the country with his relentless mission to remove protections for land, water and wildlife.” The Wilderness Society has directly called upon the Senate to reject Bernhardt’s nomination.

Regardless of first impressions, there’s consensus from the industry around the need for accountability. Alongside support for the nomination, TRCP pledged “to hold him accountable to the sportsmen and women we represent.” Amy Roberts, Executive Director of OIA, concludes, “The fact is that Americans from every corner of our great country must be ensured access to our public places and we are ready to support efforts that keep these protections for us all.”

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