STEAMBOAT SPRINGS • The U.S. secretary of the Interior came home to Colorado Friday to a warm welcome from those attending the 11th annual Freedom Conference hosted by the conservative Steamboat Institute.
David Bernhardt, who was confirmed in the post in April, is a native of Rifle, just a few hours down the highway from Steamboat Springs, where the conference brought in just under 400 people, amid heavy security.
“It’s an honor to serve in the Trump administration,” Bernhardt told the friendly crowd. He explained that growing up in Rifle, he was surrounded by lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, and that he hunted and fished on those lands.
“It instilled in me the importance of public access and protecting the natural beauty of landscapes,” he explained. But the reality is, he added, that rural communities on the Western Slope also depend on those lands and natural resources being developed “as well as for conservation and recreation.”
The nation will have an historic legacy of accomplishment by the end of President Donald Trump’s tenure, Bernhardt said, pointing to job growth and record low unemployment.
Bernhardt was named 53rd secretary of the Interior by Trump on Feb. 4. He previously served as deputy secretary under Ryan Zinke and as acting secretary after Zinke resigned on Jan. 2, 2019, in the wake of ethics scandals.
As to the Department of the Interior, Bernhardt said in 2017 and 2018, the department delivered $3.7 million in deregulatory relief.
“We’ve helped America become No. 1” in oil and gas production worldwide, he said, and revenues on federal lands have soared to more than $8.9 billion.
In addition, federal lands now have the highest number of oil and gas-producing leases since 2008, he said, yet that oil and gas production occupies fewer acres of land due to American technology and innovation.
Bernhardt also touched on the department's announced intention to move the management of its Bureau of Land Management to the western United States.
On July 15, Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado announced the BLM planned to relocate its headquarters to Grand Junction, although it later turned out that only 27 employees would likely move to the Western Slope community. The rest will be scattered around the West, including at the Federal Center in Lakewood.
Bernhardt said his goal in moving the BLM is part of a plan to reorganize, realign and strengthen the BLM, noting that Colorado’s senators, Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet, as well as Gov. Jared Polis, have been talking about this “for years.”
It’s more expensive to keep the BLM in Washington, D.C., Bernhardt explained, in part due to “locality pay” that covers the more expensive cost of living in the nation’s Capitol.
“We need to get resources to the front lines of our operations,” he said.
He noted, for example, that the managers of the wild horse and burro programs are in Washington, while the programs themselves are out West. Most of the mining on federal land takes place in Nevada and Arizona, but the top mining staff are in Washington, he said.
Bernhardt sent a letter to Congress in July, notifying them of his decision, and that Congress had 30 days to respond. That’s now expired and “we will begin the implementation phase” of the move. He also said he believes that the “best and brightest will beg to get into” the agency, solving a recruitment problem because people didn’t want to move to Washington.
However, House Democrats claim they have not given the green light for the move and that Bernhardt is incorrect in assuming there are no concerns by Congress.
In a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Bernhardt expanded on the BLM relocation. There has been “stiff opposition," including from BLM employees, one questioner noted.
Bernhardt pushed back, stating that in his travels to BLM offices, he’s been “shocked by how enthusiastic” BLM employees are about this change.
“There are folks out there who see this differently,” he added, but “they probably haven’t analyzed the problem or come up with a solution.”
He also touched on forest fire prevention on federal lands, noting that the agency has 4,500 people dedicated to firefighting and 2,500 active management projects in 2019. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the agency is planning to work on 11,000 miles of firebreaks and has treated 1.2 million acres this year alone.
Bernhardt also brought up the Endangered Species Act. The Trump administration earlier this month rolled out some of the broadest changes in decades to enforcement of the law, allowing the government to put an economic cost on saving scare plants and animals.
Bernhardt said there are a number of places in the act where “it was unnecessarily conflict-driven and not focused on efforts to optimize conservation and protect species.”
Bernhardt was also asked to address the president’s recent interest in purchasing Greenland, a notion that has been firmly rebuffed by Greenland and its parent nation, Denmark. “They do significant critical minerals,” Bernhardt said, laughing, “but that’s a question for someone else,” not Interior.
The institute is part of the conservative State Policy Network, funded by the Koch brothers, although there was no mention of the passing of David Koch, reported Friday morning, in opening remarks by institute CEO Jennifer Schubert-Akin.
The conference also includes a film festival and will conclude Saturday.