VAIL, Colo. — Interior Secretary and native Coloradan David Bernhardt said Monday in a brief, if unintentional, interview with The Colorado Independent that he’s not worried about climate change posing an imminent threat to national parks, nor to the outdoor recreation industry.
Climate scientists agree that rising temperatures and decreasing precipitation present a particularly high risk for many of the country’s most beloved natural spaces.
But Bernhardt, who recently told Congress that he hasn’t “lost any sleep” over record-high carbon dioxide levels, told The Colorado Independent: “My view is that Rocky Mountain National Park, my view is that Estes Park, should be confident that whatever change occurs in the future, and we don’t know what that will be — I would think that folks would be attracted to Rocky Mountain National Park in the foreseeable future, and I don’t think you’d find any debate about that.”
Bernhardt was in Vail to deliver what was billed as a keynote address for the three-day Western Governors Association meeting. Rather than give a speech, Bernhardt fielded mostly friendly questions from the roughly dozen governors, Democrat and Republican, in attendance.
Bernhardt held no general press availability, but agreed to a one-on-one conversation with The Colorado Independent following his Q&A with the governors. It quickly became clear he had mistaken The Independent for the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, his hometown paper, because Bernhardt’s first question to the Indy reporter was how long he had lived in Glenwood Springs. Bernhardt, upon realizing he was talking to the wrong news organization, agreed to an abbreviated interview.
The Rifle native, who was confirmed as Interior secretary just last month, took the Indy’s questions on deferred maintenance at national parks, drilling and mining on public lands, and the future of the outdoor recreation industry given the threat of climate change.
The National Parks system has a $12.6 billion maintenance backlog, according to Interior, with roads accounting for about half of that. Bernhardt said it was “out of control” well before he got this job, and that the problem has only gotten worse since.
“A lot of our stuff at parks was built in the 60s or earlier,” said Bernhardt, who talked about buildings he recently saw in Acadia National Park that are “literally crumbling” and “not up to code.”
“You may go look at a campground and charcoal grills are falling down, the amenities don’t work, the water doesn’t turn on when you turn it on,” he said, explaining that he’s trying to address this problem by raising entry fees and costs for visitors inside parks.
Beyond climate change and infrastructure, environmentalists see at least one other immediate threat to public lands: the Trump administration, for which Bernhardt works. About a half-mile down the road from the luxury hotel that hosted the governors’ summit, a group of environmentalists, some of whom donned “swamp monster” masks, protested Bernhardt.
Under Trump and Bernhardt’s predecessor, the scandal-ridden Ryan Zinke, the U.S. removed more than 2 million acres of previously protected lands in Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments — a record amount for removal of such protected space.
Bernhardt has carried the torch since taking office, helping to facilitate the first leases to oil companies in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was previously off-limits to drillers. The lease sale will happen this year, Interior officials have promised.
Asked whether he’d like to see further expansion of mining and drilling operations on public lands, Bernhardt told The Independent, “I don’t have a metric that says there’s this many acres mined today and my goal is to have X many acres mined tomorrow.”
But he did say he’s proud to be “expeditiously” processing applications for such activity.
At that point — after three questions — Bernhardt’s spokeswoman cut off the interview.
In Bernhardt’s public Q&A, only Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat and a University of Colorado-Boulder graduate, pressed him, in polite tones, on public land management and the future of the outdoor recreation industry.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, whose record on climate issues suggests nearly diametric opposition to Bernhardt’s past lobbying efforts and current agenda, thanked Bernhardt for collaborating on a management plan for the Colorado River and asked him about deferred maintenance in national parks.
The room was filled with a mix of political staffers, policy-makers and corporate sponsors, including Shell Oil, Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, TransCanada, Xcel Energy, Vail Resorts and Walmart.
“We could not do our job (without their sponsorship)” Joe Rassenfoss, a former Rocky Mountain News journalist who now runs communications for the Western Governors Association, told The Independent. “They support bipartisan policy development. That’s how it works.”
The governors’ summit will continue through Wednesday, and will feature additional keynotes from Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.