Senators Press Interior Secretary Nominee David Bernhardt on Public Lands During Committee Hearing

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“We need experience around here,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in her opening statement for the hearing on Thursday to consider the nomination of David Bernhardt to be interior secretary.

“Mr. Bernhardt has served as solicitor, as deputy secretary, and now acting secretary of the interior,” Murkowski said. Indeed, Thursday’s hearing was the third time Bernhardt has given testimony before this committee for a job promotion within the Interior Department.

“He has proven his ability to lead the department,” Murkowski continued. “He has built strong working relationships with those who are affected by its decisions. I believe there is no question that he is ready for this job and can handle everything that it entails.” Following Murkowski’s lead, many senators lauded Bernhardt for his experience as a public servant.

“Mr. Bernhardt, it is clear that you have the knowledge and experience to serve as secretary,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the committee, in his opening remarks. “You know the department inside and out, and are well versed in all the issues that come before it. ...Your record has been scrutinized and, in light of the great amount of responsibility and authority that comes with this job, I think that’s only fair.”

A lawyer from Colorado, Bernhardt first started working for the department in 2001. He has also been employed as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, which has raised concern among some groups in the environmental community and outdoor industry.

Should Bernhardt be confirmed as interior secretary, senators from both parties on the committee called on him to act swiftly to carry out the more than 120 provisions within the bipartisan public lands package that recently passed. They also pressed him to fight for more budget for the bipartisan-supported Land and Water Conservation Fund, a 54-year program that supports local, state and federal lands, and provides opportunities for recreation. Republicans and Democrats also emphasized the urgency to address the nearly $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects across the National Park System.

Others, however, were critical of Bernhardt, starting with Sen, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who accused Bernhardt of being “just another corrupt official.”

Wyden’s statement was referring to Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and reported on by the New York Times on Tuesday. According to the Times, the documents show “top political appointees of the Interior Department” blocked a report that identified pesticides so toxic they “‘jeopardize the continued existence’ of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish and other animals and plants.” The Times also reported the Interior Department moved to implement a new analysis of the toxic chemicals, with a “much narrower standard to determine the risks from the pesticides.”

Bernhardt responded to Wyden’s statement by saying the New York Times report is “not even close to the actual story.”

“I make decisions based on exactly the same standards on every single thing that comes to my desk,” Bernhardt continued. “Have we appropriately dealt with the facts and the information as we see it? That’s a factual question. Have we dealt with the parameters of the law that we have? That’s a legal question. And then there’s also at times a policy question.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a friend of Bernhardt’s for more than two decades, defended Bernhardt against Wyden’s line of questioning. “I think there is an absolute double standard that’s being applied here,” said Gardner, as he wrapped up his questioning. Gardner also nudged Bernhardt to consider moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management west to Colorado, specifically Grand Junction. “If you want a street address, I can provide that,” said Gardner.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) also took the opportunity to appeal for his home state, asking Bernhardt to consider withdrawing a sensitive cultural and historic landscape from oil and gas development. “The greater Chaco Canyon landscape is one of the most sensitive and important cultural landscapes in the nation and it’s eminently threatened by recent expanded oil and gas development,” said Heinrich. He invited Bernhardt to New Mexico to meet with tribal leaders and elected officials, so he could see the land with his own eyes.

Heinrich also was critical of the lack of support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal. He said it “included almost no funding for LWCF, that was despite this enormous groundswell of support. Why is there no funding for this program?”

Bernhardt applauded Congress for permanently authorizing the LWCF and for passing the bipartisan public lands package. He said FY 2020 budget discussions were in the beginning stages, and added that he is creating a task force to expedite implementation of the more than 120 provisions in the package. Responding to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who spoke about greater access to public lands, Bernhardt pointed to an order he signed on March 21 that directs the BLM to weigh public access for outdoor recreation before they dispose or exchange public lands.

“I think you have a real opportunity to build on the bipartisan success that you had with this lands package,” said Bernhardt.

One challenge that remains: the backlog of deferred maintenance in the National Park System. Nearly $12 billion worth of repairs or maintenance on things like buildings and roads has been postponed for more than a year. Bernhardt stated that the Department of the Interior manages more than about 76,000 constructed assets in the National Park system, and that more than 54 percent of their portfolio of assets was built before 1966. In their questions, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) mentioned specific details about ongoing repairs to the USS Arizona Memorial at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) made a pitch for the development of the Foothills Parkway, a road corridor near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, that has yet to be built. In meetings with senators on the committee before the hearing, Bernhardt said many of them voiced an urgent need to address the maintenance backlog.

“There’s a lot of support for it,” said Bernhardt. “We need to figure out how to build on that and talk to the House [of Representatives]. I’m happy to row as hard as I can.”

Up next, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will convene to consider Bernhardt’s nomination in an up-or-down vote. If approved, Bernhardt’s nomination will advance to a vote before the full Senate, where he needs 51 votes to be confirmed.

Speaking directly to Bernhardt during his opening statement, Manchin reminded the room what was at stake during Thursday’s hearing: “If confirmed, you will be the guardian of our nation’s greatest natural treasures, a vast network of public lands, including our national parks, our monuments, and our historical sites. It is imperative that all of our citizen stakeholders that have interest in the conservation and use of our federal lands are able to engage with the department.”

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