From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Bernhardt — the department’s deputy secretary, who has been acting secretary since Ryan Zinke’s departure from the top job at the end of the year amidst ethics probes — was announced as the President’s choice to replace Zinke…
It’s believed that if Bernhardt is confirmed, he would be the first Western Slope native to hold a Cabinet-level position, at least in recent history.
His nomination was heralded in some quarters Monday and met with staunch criticism in others, reflecting that Bernhardt, like Zinke, has been a somewhat polarizing figure at Interior.
“This is fantastic news for Colorado,” U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a news release. “I’ve known David Bernhardt for many years and have worked closely with him over the last two years to advance Colorado priorities. As a native Coloradan from the Western Slope, David knows how important public lands are to our state and has a keen understanding of the issues Coloradans face every day.”
But Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, called Bernhardt’s nomination “an affront to America’s parks and public lands.”
She calls Bernhardt a “walking conflict of interest” because of his prior work as an attorney representing oil and gas, water and other industries and interests.
“As an oil and gas lobbyist, Bernhardt pushed to open vast swaths of public lands for drilling and mining. As deputy secretary, he was behind some of the worst policy decisions of Secretary Zinke’s sad tenure, including stripping protections for imperiled wildlife. Bernhardt even used the government shutdown to approve drilling permits for companies linked to his former clients,” Rokala said in a news release.
“As senators consider Bernhardt’s nomination, it’s crucial they remember that the ongoing investigations into Ryan Zinke’s conduct intersect with policies that David Bernhardt has helped enact. Otherwise, we’ll see another Interior secretary fall into the same ethical abyss that ended Ryan Zinke’s political career.”
Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said in a statement, “Bernhardt is an ex-lobbyist and the ultimate DC-swamp creature with so many potential conflicts of interest that he has to carry around a list of his former clients. He is simply too conflicted to be our next Interior Secretary, and the Senate should vote his nomination down.”
Last week, the Center for Western Priorities released a poll by Keating Research that it said showed more than 60 percent of Coloradans were extremely or somewhat concerned that clients Bernhardt once lobbied for have business before the department he now runs.
The poll reportedly found that just 18 percent of Coloradans think increasing oil and gas development should be Interior’s most important issue, while 74 percent said what matters most is striking a better balance between preserving public lands and responsible oil and gas development.
Bernhardt has sought to recuse himself at times from potential conflicts of interest. In September, he bowed out of tentative plans to speak at a water forum in Grand Junction because of a potential conflict.
Mike Samson, a Garfield County commissioner who taught Bernhardt at Rifle High School, said he thinks anyone in government faces the potential for conflicts of interest to some degree.
He said Bernhardt, who was “a great student,” is smart enough to make sure that what he does is right, so as not to create problems down the road.
Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, said that based on her limited interactions with Bernhardt, he is strict about avoiding conflicts of interest.
“He seems to be very adamant in that regard,” she said.
Local government representatives such as Samson and Petersen are thrilled at the prospect of a western Coloradan running a department so influential in the West.
“We had thought that he would be a good candidate for the position and apparently the president thinks so as well,” Petersen said…
Bernhardt has worked in roles including serving on the staff of Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis when McInnis served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as Interior’s solicitor during the George W. Bush administration. More recently he has been instrumental in carrying out the Trump administration’s energy-dominance agenda.
Gardner, Samson and Petersen all credit him for the role he played during the Trump administration in getting oil and gas revenue returned to western Colorado governments that was left over after the cleanup of the Anvil Points oil shale research site near Rifle.
Petersen said he worked closely with governor offices in the West to consider comments from local governments regarding revising greater sage-grouse management plans, after local governments weren’t listened to when the plans were first issued in 2015.
Whit Fosburgh, president and chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said that his group has worked closely with Bernhardt, “and we have found him to be accessible, fair, and true to his word,” and the group supports his nomination.
He said the nomination “places him in an unenviable position to balance the priorities of the Trump Administration with the mission of the (Interior) Department. We have often disagreed on policies, such as the pace and siting of energy development and the failure of the department to require developers to mitigate the damage they do to the lands that belong to all Americans. At the same time we have worked productively with Mr. Bernhardt to expand recreational access to public lands and protect big-game migration corridors.”