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As Many Expected, Acting Secretary David Bernhardt Is Nominated To Head Interior Department

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Bureau of Reclamation

Updated 6:36 p.m. MST

President Donald Trump took to Twitter to nominate David Bernhardt as the nation’s next Interior Secretary. The former oil industry lobbyist and longtime government employee has been acting Secretary since Ryan Zinke stepped down last month amid questions about his ethics and conflicts of interest.

Bernhardt served as Deputy Interior Secretary during Zinke’s 21-month tenure at the helm of the department. In that role, he was largely responsible for running daily operations in Washington. During his tenure, he has reduced regulations and helped open millions of acres of federally-managed public lands to potential oil and gas development.

The Interior Department is charged with managing a quarter of all land in the Mountain West and nearly half in Utah and Wyoming, specifically.

As Secretary, insiders expect him to continue much of Zinke and Trump’s energy independence agenda, something that raises ethical concerns for environmental advocates given Bernhardt’s ties to the oil and gas industry.

“From the industry’s viewpoint, he seems to be a very, very good choice,” said Phil Flynn, an energy market analyst with the PRICE Futures Group, a private market-insights group based in Chicago.

Flynn said he believes the U.S. Interior Department is being steered by the Trump administration’s pro-energy agenda, so not much will change under Bernhardt’s leadership.

“I think that there’s going to be reasonable decisions made when it comes to opening up public lands for drilling and expansion,” Flynn said.

But staying the course under the Trump administration’s energy-dominant agenda isn’t great news for public lands advocates like Land Tawney, president of the sportsmen's group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“Bernhardt has a track record of doing things behind the scenes, and now he’ll have to do that out in front. So it will be interesting to see how he operates,” Tawney said.

His organization has long been critical of Zinke’s tenure at the Interior Department.

“This idea of energy dominance is something that not only makes me nervous but [also] many hunters and anglers all across the country,” he said. “Energy development needs to happen, but it needs to happen in a balance going forward. Resource domination means money to me and I think our natural resources lose every single time.”

According to a recent poll from Colorado College, a majority of Westerners agree with Tawney when it comes to energy development. Only eight percent believe that increasing energy development should be a top priority for the new Interior Secretary.

President Trump has yet to announce a date for Bernhardt’s Senate confirmation, but some Congressional Democrats are already expressing concerns.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) is chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, the entity in charge of helping set the agency’s budget. She said she wasn’t happy with Bernhardt’s controversial choice to keep national parks open during the partial government shutdown.

“Just on this blush here I’m not in agreement on the way he makes decisions,” McCollum said. “Congress controls the purse and we will be doing scrutiny and oversight into how American tax funds are used to protect America’s treasures,” she said.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), former chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Bernhardt’s nomination was “a brilliant move. No one is more experienced and I look forward to working with him.”

Roughly a quarter of all land in the Mountain West region is managed by the Interior Department.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2021 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.
Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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