Interior Bernhardt Salazar

David Bernhardt, then deputy secretary of the Interior, speaks during a Colorado Petroleum Council luncheon in Denver on July 26, 2018. At right is former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Love him or hate the Trump administration, Dave Bernhardt should make Colorado proud. He's the seventh Coloradan to serve as secretary of the Interior, the third in the last two decades. 

The high-powered Washington, D.C., player grew up in Rifle to working-class folks when it was town of about 3,200 in the 1980s. He lived through the booms and busts of the energy economy on Colorado's gorgeous Western Slope and witnessed the economic pain of lost jobs and shuttered businesses.

“The economy, the world, was just depressing," he told me over coffee in Denver last summer.

Bernhardt is just about the nicest guy I've met in 30-odd years of covering government folks. He's the chatty, jovial next-door neighbor you wish you had. Here now is a soft-hearted Coloradan in charge of 70,000 department employees, 280,000 volunteers and 2,400 parks, preserves and worksites. 

We, as a state, should be as proud of him as we were when Ken Salazar took the Cabinet post in the Obama administration 2009, if not for the prevailing politics of our time.

It was easy for U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner to vote to confirm Bernhardt. The men have been friends for decades, and Gardner is a Republican.

"We both grew up in rural Colorado," Gardner said at Bernhardt's confirmation as deputy secretary in 2017. "I am from the Eastern Plains. Mr. Bernhardt is from the Western Slope of Colorado. While the geography of our two homes is quite different, we share a lot of common interests and the development of the values that shape small towns."

Colorado's senior senator, on the other hand, couldn't bring himself to put state pride above party politics. Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet voted no, even though it was a deviation from precedent.

Democratic Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado found his way to vote in favor of confirming James Watt, after President Reagan nominated the leader of the Lakewood-based (and Coors-funded) Mountain States Legal Foundation in 1981.

Bennet voted to confirm Bernhardt as deputy Interior secretary under Ryan Zinke just two years ago, but now he doesn't see him as fit for the top job. Democrats are in the midst of assigning purity tests for potential presidential nominees, and Bennet couldn't afford to flunk this one.

He even issued a press release in February to announce his opposition to the fellow Coloradan.

“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," Bennet stated.

“Although I respect David Bernhardt as a Coloradan, I cannot support his nomination to serve as Secretary of the Interior.”

When Bennet was for Bernhardt before he was against him, he must have been under some delusion as to what President Trump's policies would entail. He must have skipped reading Bernhardt's bio.

Known for a relentless work ethic, Bernhardt's resume is troubling to environmental purists who point to his ties to industry as a lawyer-lobbyist for Denver-based firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck.

Besides backing Zinke, Bernhardt previously worked under another Coloradan to hold the Cabinet position, Gale Norton, who road shotgun over a 22% increase in coal production on public lands and a 17% boost in natural-gas output there during her five years there.

Both Colorado senators at the time -- fellow Republicans Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell -- voted to confirm Norton in 2001, as she sailed into the post on a 75-24 outcome.

Among the no votes for Norton were Sens. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.

That makes Gary Hart the Democratic outlier with presidential aspirations, not Bennet.

The Department of the Interior, for sure, oversees our national treasures, but it's also a big business.

The department says its work spurred more than $296 billion in economic output and 1.8 million jobs in 2015 from energy development on federal lands and waters, grazing fees, timber sales and recreation.

That was under the Obama administration, mind you. I don't recall Colorado environmental groups issuing a drumbeat of press releases to oust Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the CEO of the REI sporting goods chain who hailed from Washington state. 

She was confirmed 87-11 in 2013 with both Democratic senators from Colorado in her corner. Her supporters, however, also included Republican Sens. John McCain, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and future Trump frenemy Jeff Sessions.

Henry Teller was the first Coloradan to be interior secretary in 1882 under Republican President Charles A. Arthur, a president who, like the current occupant of the White House, liked the finer things. He was said to own an astonishing 80 pairs of pants.

Teller, the namesake of a Colorado county, helped drive the Arapahoe and Cheyenne of the Eastern Plains as a major general of the Colorado militia. As interior secretary, he sought to abolish Indian culture and open up more Indian lands in the West to white settlement.

Regardless of his boss's fancy trousers, Bernhardt could prove to be a valuable asset to his home state.

If Trump wins a second term, Bernhardt would be in a prime position to carry through with Zinke's proposal to move the department's headquarters out of D.C.

Grand Junction, 52 miles west of Bernhardt's childhood home, already has been identified as a prime candidate.

Bernhardt's wife, Gena, a federal attorney, nixed his hope of returning to Colorado when the Bush administration ended in 2009. 

“I think if they move the headquarters to Junction, I’ll have to say, ‘Honey, I’m in Junction,'” he told me last summer.

BLM in Junction is a Colorado legacy that could live on far past the occupant of the White House and the administration's policies.

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