Washingtonians should pay attention to David Bernhardt, a former energy-industry lobbyist that President Donald Trump just nominated to lead the Interior Department.
The department manages much of what’s sacred and essential to the Northwest, including federal lands, national parks, wildlife refuges and the Columbia Basin water system that provides 75 percent of the region’s power and irrigates much of Eastern Washington farmland. It’s also responsible for fish and wildlife, Indian affairs, mineral resources and geological risks such as volcanoes and earthquakes. Altogether it manages a fifth of the land in the U.S., mostly in the West.
Trump’s first pick to lead the agency, former Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, was a fiasco, especially for people concerned about preservation, limiting fossil-fuel extraction and preventing unfair exploitation of public lands. Bernhardt, a savvy Beltway veteran, could be devastatingly more effective.
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Bernhardt has been acting director since Zinke resigned in December, amid a flurry of ethics investigations and controversy over his unprecedented reductions of public monuments and regulations to protect wildlife habitat and safety.
While Zinke drew attention — riding a horse to work, using firefighting dollars to pay for helicopter rides and apparently cutting land deals with pals back home in Montana — Bernhardt was serving as deputy director since August 2017, quietly working to implement Trump’s agenda for boosting U.S. fossil-fuel production and cutting regulations.
Zinke’s promise to be a careful steward of public lands evaporated as Interior sought to open nearly every coastline and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, eased protections for the declining sage-grouse population, stepped up oil and gas leases on public lands, and rolled back offshore drilling safety regulations created after the deadly Deepwater Horizons disaster in 2010. Zinke also halted an Obama-era effort, initiated by former Secretary Sally Jewell, to pause federal coal leasing and assess whether the public was getting fairly compensated for the sale of its resources.
While the mix of preservation and commercial activity on public lands will always be debated, there should be no disagreement about the need for more transparency and ethical leadership at Interior.
After more than a dozen investigations into Zinke’s behavior were underway, he replaced Interior’s acting inspector general with a political appointee. After public-interest groups Democracy Forward, American Oversight and Western Values Project sought public records to examine Bernhardt’s potential conflicts of interest, the agency balked, then initiated changes that would give the agency more leeway to limit or reject public-records requests.
The Republican-controlled Senate is likely to approve Bernhardt’s nomination. But Washingtonians shouldn’t give up, and should urge their delegation to press Bernhardt on his commitment to preserve public lands, protect wildlife, uphold environmental regulations, increase transparency and ensure the public is fairly compensated when public resources are sold.
“The challenge becomes really how do we successfully oversee the agency for the stewardship and following the law,” said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington. “We’re not slowing down there — if anything, we might accelerate the focus.”
Appointing industry veterans to run agencies overseeing those industries is old hat for the Trump administration, but Bernhardt is in a class all his own. The Washington Post reported last year that he had so many conflicts of interest as deputy secretary, he carried a card listing them for handy reference.
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