Horse News

With a Stroke of Red Marker, Zinke Leaves Interior to His Deputy

By Emilie Karrick Surrusco as published on

The new acting Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, has been described as a “walking conflict of interest.”

David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for major polluting projects, is taking over as acting Secretary of Interior.

As 2019 begins, it’s out with the old and in with the same old, same old. Scandal-ridden Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke released a brief farewell letter today in red marker. With Zinke’s successor not yet named, David Bernhardt becomes acting secretary. The move swaps out one political insider closely aligned with deep-pocketed special interests for another.

Bernhardt, who became Deputy Secretary of the Interior in August 2017, is “a walking conflict of interest” who served as the Interior Department’s top lawyer under George W. Bush — and went on to a lucrative career as a legal adviser for timber companies, mining companies, and oil and gas interests. Since returning to the Interior Department under Trump, he has quietly implemented policy decisions that benefit his former corporate polluter clients.

“As Deputy Secretary and now as acting Secretary, David Bernhardt never intended to adhere to basic standards of ethics and accountability. Instead, he is hell bent on continuing Zinke’s work of dismantling bedrock environmental protections and selling off our public lands to the highest bidder,” said Martin Hayden, Earthjustice VP of Policy and Legislation. “This is business as usual for the Trump administration and Earthjustice will continue to fight them every step of the way.”

The Interior Department is currently facing litigation from Friends of the Earth, Western Values Project, and others for failing to release ethics documents under the Freedom of Information Act that could help explain why Bernhardt’s former lobbying clients have received regulatory and policy decisions in their favor.

“It is noteworthy that many of the Deputy Secretary’s former clients began receiving sudden and dramatic windfalls only months after his swearing in,” the complaint reads. “By failing to respond to FOIA requests concerning Deputy Secretary Bernhardt, DOI has violated the law.”

One month after Bernhardt took over as the No. 2 at Interior, the Bureau of the Land Management announced a change that made it easier for Cadiz Inc., to go forward with a controversial water project. Cadiz, a former client of Bernhardt’s at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, has been trying for decades to push a dubious scheme to sell possibly contaminated water from beneath the Mojave Desert in southern California. The plan would not only imperil the desert’s fragile ecosystem, but also would endanger people who drink the water, which is contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical.

Now, thanks to the BLM’s reversal of an Obama administration decision, Cadiz has cleared one legal hurdle that would allow them to build a pipeline to carry the water through the Mojave Trails National Monument to the Los Angeles area.

Bernhardt’s old lobbying firm has already earned 200,000 shares of Cadiz stock for their involvement with the company, and stands to earn 200,000 more if the project is completed.

Bernhardt was also a lobbyist for the Westlands Water District, a politically influential irrigation agency that has long battled the federal government on behalf of big agribusinesses in California’s arid western Central Valley. Westlands has paid Bernhardt’s firm $1.27 million in lobbying fees since 2011. Its demands for increased water flows to farms jeopardize endangered species in the ecologically compromised San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, particularly in times of drought.

In October, President Trump signed a memorandum to review water regulations and speed up review of the rules about how water is pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, in order to facilitate more water allotments for Westlands’ large commercial farmers.

“What’s happened there is disgraceful,” Trump said of California’s water situation, according to the Sacramento Bee. “They’ve taken it away. There’s so much water, they don’t know what to do with it, they send it out to sea …. They don’t let the water come down into the Valley and into the areas where they need the water.”

Westlands also is responsible for an environmental disaster in the early 1980s, when a half-finished irrigation canal built by the federal government carried tainted Westlands water directly into a wildlife refuge. Migratory birds were killed or hatched with birth defects caused by naturally occurring selenium and heavy metals in the water. A long-running legal battle over the disaster finally culminated in a proposed settlement between the Interior Department and Westlands in 2015, which put the onus on Westlands to deal with the aftermath of the pollution while forgiving its roughly $375 million debt to the government. Bernhardt represented Westlands in the negotiation of the settlement, which is yet to be finalized. A bill introduced in the House of Representatives last year would require the Interior Department to implement the proposed settlement.

Another former client, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, benefited when Bernhardt oversaw proposed revisions to agreements for the management of sage grouse habitat across 10 Western states. The revisions eliminate protections for the imperiled bird in favor of petroleum development. And while the sage grouse is not listed as endangered, it has been protected by the Endangered Species Act, a law that Bernhardt has been dead set against since his time as the Interior Department’s Solicitor General in the early 2000s. Bernhardt has continued his campaign against the Endangered Species Act since returning to the Interior Department, with proposals to allow regulators to consider the economic impacts in decisions about listing particular species, rather than just looking at available science. In a Washington Post op-ed authored by Bernhardt, he calls for “creative, incentive-based conservation” to bring “our government’s implementation of the Endangered Species Act into the 21st century.”

In a similar vein, Bernhardt has continued efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling. During his career as a lobbyist, Bernhardt represented the state of Alaska in controversial litigation that aimed to open the Arctic Refuge to development. Since assuming his position as Deputy Secretary, Bernhardt has described environmental review of drilling in America’s largest wildlife refuge as “just nuts” and has led efforts to rush legally-required analysis of drilling in this pristine area. To this end, Bernhardt introduced a policy aimed at curtailing the National Environmental Policy Act — which dictates that all NEPA work must be completed within one year and be limited to 150 pages.

With his pro-polluter, anti-environment track record, Bernhardt is the wrong person to lead the federal department charged with natural resource conservation. We will work with our allies to continue to hold the Trump administration accountable in the courts.

9 replies »


    The Terrible Destruction of Pinyon-Juniper Forests
    DECEMBER 28, 2018

    Two previous waves of pinyon-juniper deforestation have swept the Great Basin. A third wave is underway.

    Now sage-grouse are being used as cover for the third big wave of deforestation, as federal agencies try to distract the public from the urgent need to list sage-grouse under the ESA. Grouse have been weaponized, and pitted against the pinyon jay, Clark’s nutcracker, mountain bluebird, black-throated gray warbler, ferruginous hawk, pinon mouse and other forest denizens. Pinyon jay populations have already precipitously declined by an alarming 85%, primarily due to deforestation.

    Fearmongering that grouse would destroy the West’s economy and “way of life”, or cheerleading for the huge sums of tax dollars politicians were throwing at vegetation projects and private ranch lands to “conserve” the birds. Agencies like NRCS were begging ranchers to sign up for expensive grouse projects or conservation easements in the middle of nowhere.

    An echo chamber of Land Grant college, USGS and BLM range personnel and state Game Department scientists (none of them forest ecologists) ginned up elaborate vegetation models based on “range science” lies.

    Western Governors and Game agencies rabidly opposed to ESA listing assembled “working groups” dominated by ranchers and miners to develop grouse plans promoting state and local control. The plans were used to weaken federal efforts. Grazing got a pass. Trees were public enemy #1, along with wild horses present in even the smallest numbers.

    Liked by 1 person


    The Terrible Destruction of Pinyon-Juniper Forests (continued)
    DECEMBER 28, 2018

    BLM’s Fuelbreak and Tree Massacre Smokescreen

    Instead of taking better care of the existing sagebrush habitats and protecting them from grazing, development and flammable cheatgrass expansion, or admitting that forested areas are the least likely to burn, the BLM plans focused on radical deforestation.

    The Fish and Wildlife Service hid behind the BLM smokescreen, never questioning what such colossal manipulation of native vegetation communities would do to the land.

    Cumulatively, the FIAT assessments of the five priority areas identify more than 16,000 km (10,000 mi) of potential linear fuel treatments, approximately 2.99 million ha (7.4 million ac) of potential conifer treatments, more than 2 million ha (5 million ac) of potential invasive plant treatments, and more than 7.7 million ha (19 million ac) of post-fire rehabilitation (i.e., should a fire occur, the post-fire rehabilitation identifies which areas BLM would prioritize for management) within the Great Basin region …

    Herbicide-drenched Fuelbreaks give the illusion of BLM being able to control climate-driven wildfires. An EIS is now underway. The radical deforestation allows BLM to claim it is creating new habitat at higher elevations (while cheatgrass sweeps the chronically cow-beat sage below).\

    By 2015, Ely BLM, Burns BLM offices across Utah, western Colorado, Idaho Burley BLM and Oregon BLM in western juniper country already had stacks of documents aimed at killing trees, with more generated since. The projects typically target sites where there are few sage-grouse and the potential for robust populations is slim – places where no matter how many trees are killed or dollars spent, the land is unlikely to ever be bountiful grouse habitat – too steep, rugged, very arid, or the surrounding sage is already too fragmented and weedy or otherwise lacking the particular combination of features sage-grouse need.

    Pockets of old growth forest that survived the previous waves of deforestation are now being destroyed. Even individual old trees are hunted down and killed.

    Liked by 1 person


    The Terrible Destruction of Pinyon-Juniper Forests (continued)
    DECEMBER 28, 2018

    Why – Beyond Grouse?

    Public lands ranchers have always hated the trees. Just like native predators are killed as rancher enemies, native trees (and sage) take up space where grass might grow so they must be destroyed. In all of these projects, BLM ballyhoos wildfire suppression benefits, ignoring that deforestation creates hotter, drier, windier, weedier sites with longer fire seasons.

    The trees are vilified as water sucking weeds, begrudged the water they transpire. No surprise in country where the Southern Nevada Water Authority floated destruction of greasewood communities on the valley floors because the thorny shrub needed a little water to survive. SNWA purchased ranch property for water rights, in pursuit of a still stymied giant aquifer mining and pipeline scheme to export water to Las Vegas. With the ranches came BLM and Forest Service grazing permits across a million acres.

    Trophy hunting predator hating organizations like Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife who have the ear of gun-crazed politicians and operatives clamor for tree death and stump fields – prodding agencies to farm public lands for elk and mule deer. Deforestation makes it easier to see, hunt and poach animals. In Nevada, they are closely allied with the mining industry.

    BLM funding in Districts like Ely Nevada or Burns Oregon is driven by treatments endlessly laying waste to the land. Staff have been thoroughly indoctrinated in the most heavy-handed forms of land domination. The tree massacres also provide an opportunity for foreign gold mines or other developers to “mitigate” while their pits chew up occupied sage-grouse habitat, draw down aquifers and dry up springs.

    Plus the uglier and more unpleasant (hot, dry, weedy, lifeless) the country becomes, the less the public cares about it – facilitating trouble-free grazing, mining and energy development.

    Liked by 1 person


    The Terrible Destruction of Pinyon-Juniper Forests (continued)
    DECEMBER 28, 2018

    Why – Beyond Grouse?

    Projects Detonate Across the Landscape

    Typical BLM NEPA documents parcel out incremental forest destruction over vast areas. They are like a series of ticking time bombs going off – with projects eating away unit by unit for a decade until the forest is almost gone. The devastation that remains following a chaining upheaval or a bullhog’s rampage really does look like a bomb has gone off. In the past 2 years Ely BLM spent $788,000 in Cave and Lake Valleys, $2,000,000 for just one portion of the South Steptoe project in the Egan Range, and millions more on other projects.

    Native Americans in the Great Basin relied heavily on pine nuts for survival) or other expenses.

    If you don’t think the wonderful resinous scent, the beauty of the dark green forest in these stunning landscapes, the tenacity of highly adapted drought tolerant trees, the calls of Pinyon Jays floating through the forest and biodiversity in general are sufficient to warrant forest protection, here’s an example of BLM actually providing a monetary value for the trees being wasted. Elko BLM aggressively (an anomaly for this office) pursued Madeleine Pickens ranch hand for bulldozing 689 trees at Spruce Mountain while re-building a cow water pipeline. Local ranchers like Sagebrush Rebel Demar Dahl were intent on driving Pickens out after she purchased a large ranch hoping to run wild horses salvaged from BLM round ups instead of cattle. BLM issued Pickens a proposed trespass notice valuing the bulldozed trees at $39,402. I watched a bullhog devour that many trees in an hour this spring. BLM, by its own accounting, is wantonly wasting billions of dollars of trees annually. Ironically, Elko BLM was at the very same time in the midst of destroying tens of thousands of acres of pinyon-juniper at Spruce Mountain. Who knows if BLM even included the value of the trees for pine nut production in their tally.

    Liked by 1 person


    The Terrible Destruction of Pinyon-Juniper Forests (continued)
    DECEMBER 28, 2018

    Projects Brewing

    In the million acre Wilson Creek grazing allotment near Pioche, Ely BLM’s recent rangeland land health assessment blames the usual suspects for land degradation – trees, “historical” grazing, and wild horses. BLM seeks to denude 117,000 more acres of forest, and mow or smash sage with a tractor or grass seeder across 40,000 acres (including purging sage “invading” crested wheat seedings), while stocking cows and sheep above numbers that have been able to be grazed in recent years.

    Now Congress just enacted a Farm Bill that folded in previously introduced legislation stripping environmental review of pinyon-juniper projects – the “Sage-grouse and Mule Deer Habitat Conservation and Restoration Act”, a bipartisan attack on the trees. The Farm Bill amends the Healthy Forests Restoration Act to enable BLM and the Forest Service use of Categorical Exclusions (a minimal NEPA checklist) to destroy up to 4500 acres (over 7 square miles) of pinyon-juniper trees in one fell swoop. It specifically targets trees, putting them in the same category as weeds. So much for some environmental group claims that the bad things had been removed from the Farm Bill.

    It’s really a matter of just how fast sage-grouse extinction will happen with either version (Jewell’s or Zinke’s) of the BLM grouse plans under the current public land management paradigm. This tragedy is made worse because the pinyon-juniper biome across much of the West is being purposefully destroyed as the bird’s downward trajectory plays out. Desolation.

    All photos by Katie Fite.

    Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.

    Liked by 1 person

Care to make a comment?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.