WASHINGTON -- The nomination of Colorado native David Bernhardt to become the next U.S. secretary of the Interior is drawing opinions split along party lines among the state’s senators, who will vote on the appointment, and policy advocates.
Democrats in general express misgivings while Republicans support him.
Bernhardt is scheduled for a confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A vote on whether to confirm him is expected within days afterward.
“This is fantastic news for Colorado,” Republican Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said of Bernhardt's nomination. “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. From moving the Bureau of Land Management to the West to promoting conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Coloradans will be lucky to have David lead our Interior Department.”
However, Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said, “During his tenure as deputy secretary of the Interior, Mr. Bernhardt has worked to revoke national methane standards, drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and limit input from state and local officials with respect to the oil and gas leasing process in Colorado. Although I respect David Bernhardt as a Coloradan, I cannot support his nomination to serve as Secretary of the Interior.”
Bennet’s opposition represents a reversal of his earlier stance. He voted in July 2017 to confirm Bernhardt as deputy secretary of the Interior, the department’s second-highest position.
Bernhardt was raised in Rifle before graduating from the University of Northern Colorado, getting a law degree and working as a lobbyist and lawyer for Denver-based national law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
He joined the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2001 and served as its solicitor from 2006 to 2009 before returning to private practice. In April 2017, President Donald Trump nominated him as U.S. deputy secretary of the Interior. He became the acting secretary of the Interior last January, replacing Ryan Zinke.
While working as an attorney and lobbyist, he represented California’s San Joaquin Valley Westlands Water District in a lawsuit that tried to lift court-ordered protections for endangered salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. He also represented organizers of the proposed Rosemont Copper open pit mine in Arizona.
The ethics watchdog group Campaign for Accountability last month filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics asking for an investigation into Bernhardt’s relationship with California's Westlands Water District.
The complaint says there is evidence Bernhardt directed subordinates to roll back endangered species protections for the Delta Smelt and the Chinook Salmon in a way that would benefit Westlands.
Some environmentalists continued their criticism of Bernhardt leading up to Thursday's confirmation hearing.
Chris Saeger, executive director of the Montana-based Western Values Project, said, “He’s spent the past two years at Interior doing the bidding of corporate lobbyists and special interests, and we can expect that to continue should he be confirmed as Interior secretary.”
The Western Values Project, an advocacy organization for protecting public lands, previously sued the Interior Department to obtain documents about Bernhardt's tenure as solicitor for the Interior Department.
This month, the organization released an analysis showing that oil and gas companies with ties to Bernhardt own 20 percent of all federal oil and gas leases that overlap with sage grouse habitat in Colorado and four other Western states. The sage grouse are an endangered species that environmentalists are trying to protect.
Meanwhile, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, representing hunters and anglers, supports Bernhardt.
The group "has worked closely with Mr. Bernhardt in his roles as Deputy Secretary and Acting Secretary, and we have found him to be accessible, fair, and true to his word," the group's president and CEO, Whit Fosburgh, said in a statement last month. "He has been a steady hand during challenging times at the Department and he has worked to strengthen relationships with the states and the nation’s sportsmen and women."
During Senate testimony in May 2017, Bernhardt said Trump’s views -- not scientists’ recommendations -- would determine Interior Department policies whenever possible.
Since Bernhardt became deputy secretary and later acting secretary, the Interior Department substantially increased leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands. It also sought to partially deregulate industries that previously conflicted with Interior Department regulations.
In his most recent action, Bernhardt this month signed a secretarial order that directs the Bureau of Land Management to make a priority of considering public access to federal lands for hunting, fishing and other recreation before disposing of the property.
Until Bernhardt’s order, the BLM was not required to consider public access.
“The Trump Administration will continue to prioritize access so that people can hunt, fish, camp, and recreate on our public lands,” Bernhardt said in a statement.