Guest Post: Secretary of the Interior – public citizen or private lobbyist?

'Climate is the existential issue of this generation'

Coalmont Lek outside of Walden, CO
Coalmont Lek outside of Walden, Colo. (Photo by Julio Mulero, Creative Commons, Flickr)

The Coloradan nominated by President Trump to pick up the pieces from Ryan Zinke’s tumultuous tenure of the Department of Interior, David Bernhardt, knows the department inside and out. To succeed as secretary of the Interior, however, Mr. Bernhardt will need to alter his perception of priorities and successes from the short-term transactions that are the lifeblood of industry lobbyists to the intergenerational interests of the American people.

For the West, the Trump Administration has been a case study in putting narrow, short-term resource development ahead of the stewardship ethic that Coloradans and so many millions of Americans depend upon for economic, environmental, social and cultural progress:

  • Protections for more than 2 million acres of public lands have been removed;
  • 13 million acres of public lands have been offered for oil and gas development;
  • Efforts to stem emissions of methane – a powerful heat-trapping gas – have been curtailed;
  • Carefully crafted conservation measures for the endangered sage grouse have been scrapped; and
  • Energy and resource development have prioritized above America’s growing appetite for recreation and conservation.

Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Bernhardt will have an opportunity to rebalance the department and create a legacy as secretary that is consistent with the balanced approach to public lands that Coloradans have historically evidenced. Indeed, there are numerous opportunities to champion long-term priorities that will garner broad public consensus and enhance the credibility of the department.

First and foremost, Mr. Bernhardt can clear up any confusion by making clear that mitigating and adapting to climate change is crucial to the long-term stewardship of the natural resources under the department’s purview. Climate change threatens habitats, streamflows and jobs on which millions of Americans depend and must be integrated as a central consideration and mission of the department. Climate is the existential issue of this generation and many after, and he can do great service by pursuing a few initiatives that can help slow the looming catastrophe, such as by promoting common sense, best-practice measures to curtail and capture methane leaks in energy production.

Second, he should look to shore up our vulnerable roster of wilderness and other protected public lands. Western states, which are home to most of the nation’s public lands, are growing by between 1 and 2 percent annually. Coupled with increased appetite for hiking, biking, fishing and other activities, population growth is increasing demand for parks, public lands and recreation as never before. It is imperative that our leaders think to the future and accommodate growing expectations by expanding the inventory of protected places. Mr. Bernhardt need not look far from where he grew up, to the Thompson Divide between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, as an opportunity for protection.  

Similarly, the department should make it a priority to maintain and enhance the current inventory of national parks through maintenance and infrastructure improvement. Mr. Bernhardt can embrace permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund that is a congressional priority and abandon provocative plans to mine the areas around the Grand Canyon and drill in offensive proximity to the culturally significant and magnificent Chaco Canyon.

Finally, there is a clear opportunity for the department to marry its commitment to energy development and job creation with the potential for offshore wind to become a major new source of carbon-free energy in the United States. The U.S. offshore wind resource is estimated to be as much as twice annual electricity consumption and could be a major new source of jobs, but our industry lags behind other parts of the world. Accelerating offshore wind should be a signature priority for the future.

David Bernhardt has demonstrated that he knows how the Department of Interior works, including for the interests of private industry. Looking to the future and toward his own legacy as steward of the America’s most incredible natural assets, he can build a record that serves the broad public interests of current and future generations.   

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact or visit our submission page