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Western Governors Have Good Reason to Be Uneasy with Interior Secretary Nominee David Bernhardt

by as published on Western Values Project

It’s been no secret that Western governors have been frustrated with the actions taken by the Interior Department…”

As was the case with his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, Bernhardt likes to talk with his hands, too. Photo by Lance Cheung.

David Bernhardt, President Trump’s nominee for Interior Secretary, is so toxic that even former and current GOP governors publicly criticized Bernhardt during his tenure as Interior Deputy Secretary. The public rebukes from the GOP of Bernhardt’s policy decisions underscore the uphill battle he’ll have to face in his upcoming Senate confirmation hearing.

Bernhardt recently met with a group of new and returning Western governors in Washington, D.C. through the Western Governors’ Association (WGA). While Bernhardt’s public calendar failed to provide details, the Acting Secretary and Western governors posted several tweets about the event. They can be viewed here and here.  

It’s been no secret that Western governors have been frustrated with the actions taken by the Interior Department, particularly on policies led by Bernhardt.

Bernhardt was not Western governors’ pick for the secretary position. Shortly after the resignation of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, WGA re-issued a 2016 letter on December 19, 2018, encouraging President Trump to ‘nominate a sitting Western governor to the critical cabinet post of Secretary of the Interior.’ Trump has thus far ignored the letter and tweeted that he would be nominating Bernhardt for the post. No formal nomination paperwork has been filed, leaving open the possibility that Trump may ultimately nominate someone else.

Bernhardt should be concerned with his pending nomination and eventual vote in the Senate. GOP Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) recently voted against another ex-lobbyist-turned-Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, citing proposed rollbacks of environmental protections among other issues. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV) also recently shifted his position on Wheeler and voted against his nomination. With the passage of Wheeler’s nomination (52-47), the focus now turns to the more conflicted and controversial Bernhardt.

Bernhardt was leading Interior during the government shutdown and left national parks open but understaffed, leading to untold damage and lost revenue. He’s also spearheading the agency’s move to roll back of the Endangered Species Act, efforts to undermine public land protections, pushing unchecked natural resource development on and offshore, allowing science to be altered and suppressed, and unwinding sage grouse habitat protections.

It’s been no secret Bernhardt’s lobbyist days appear to have influenced many of his actions and, more recently, he appears to have directed a decision that would benefit a former client.

BERNHARDT FLIP-FLOPS ON COMPENSATORY MITIGATION AFTER PRESSURE FROM GOVERNORS

In December, Interior quietly issued a new Instructional Memorandum that superseded the previous guidance on compensatory mitigation (issued in July 2018 and since removed from BLM’s webpage). This new policy tracks very closely with a WGA resolution on mitigation and seems to give states the ability to demand compensatory mitigation on federal lands, though the BLM still cannot. Bernhardt was forced to walk back a poorly executed regulatory rollback after pressure from the Western Governors, who were not happy with the original directive by Bernhardt.

Compensatory mitigation, which is one of the pillars of FWS’s 2015 determination that an ESA listing for sage-grouse was “not warranted,” would be optional, and would depend entirely on the willingness of industry and states to commit to and enforce compensatory mitigation requirements on federal lands.

Governors pushed back stating that compensatory mitigation should ‘provide measurable and documentable habitat and conservation values, services and functions that are at least equal to the lost or degraded values, and services and functions caused by the impact.’

FORMER AND CURRENT GOP GOVERNORS CRITICIZED BERNHARDT’S SAGE GROUSE POLICY DECISIONS

Bernhardt led Interior’s sage grouse review, which stripped away “protections from about nine million acres of the sage grouse habitat, a move that in a stroke opened up more land to oil and gas drilling than any other single policy action by the Trump administration” — and a move that generated rebuke from fellow Republicans.

Former GOP Wyoming Governor Matt Mead repeatedly criticized and expressed “disappointment” with Bernhardt for not including state and local leaders, including himself, in the sage grouse review process. “We understand that you are considering changing the Department’s approach to sage-grouse, moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states,” Mead wrote. “We are concerned that this is not the right decision.”

Similarly, former Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval “took issue with” one of Bernhardt’s sage grouse review team’s most “controversial” proposed changes, to set “state-specific population targets” rather maintaining a broad goal of “improving and restoring habitat.”

Utah GOP Governor Gary Herbert also said that Bernhardt’s proposed sage grouse policy changes were at “conflict” with Utah’s conservation plans, noting that some Western governors consider the sage grouse review one that “threatens to undermine a hard-won compromise” for the region.

WESTERN GOVERNORS CRITICIZED BERNHARDT, DOI FOR PROPOSED DOI REORGANIZATION

The Western Governors Association (WGA) also criticized Bernhardt for not consulting Western governors on proposed plans to restructure the Department of Interior. After Bernhardt and Interior officials floated plans, including one to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, the WGA sent a letter complaining that “Western Governors did not have the opportunity to hear in advance the basis for DOI’s proposal and consequently were not able to provide comments before the proposal was released to the public.” The original WGA letter also registered “significant procedural and substantive concerns with the proposed organizational changes to the DOI.”

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