Today, Interior Secretary Bernhardt will appear before House Appropriations to speak to the Trump administration’s disastrous Interior budget proposal, which slashes the department and public lands funding by some 16 percent, including, again, nearly zeroing out the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and proposes cutting over half a billion dollars in funding from national parks.
“As recently as yesterday, Secretary Bernhardt put on a not-so-pretty song and dance, trying to defend Trump’s massive cuts to public lands and parks. By proposing a 97% cut to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a billion and a half dollar taxpayer bailout for uranium mining corporations, and slashing parks by over half a billion dollars, all we have to do is follow the money to realize that the Trump administration’s values don’t reflect Americans,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of Western Value Project. “Disastrous budgets and taxpayer-funded bailouts are what we come to expect from an out-of-touch megalomaniac and the ultimate DC swamp monster.”
During Sec. Bernhardt’s previous address to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, he tried to defend an indefensible budget. While he was blasted about unconfirmed anti-public lands zealot William Pendley leading the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), many questions remain unanswered or unaddressed. This hearing is another chance for Congress to demand answers about the latest disastrous budget proposal, concerns over the controversial BLM boondoggle, William Pendley’s role at BLM, the FOIA office and lack of transparency at Interior, ongoing ethics investigation, the historic rollbacks to public lands protections, and the many other outstanding issues facing Interior that are impacting America’s wildlife, public lands, and national parks.
Just yesterday, Sec. Bernhardt appeared before the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and was unable to speak to a number of issues, including a question from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) about Interior’s future plans around offshore drilling.
In anticipation of Sec. Bernhardt’s Congressional appearances, Western Values Project (WVP) — an Accountable.US project based in Montana, defending America’s public lands — released several questions for him to answer. Many of those questions remain unanswered, as well as the questions below, following up on Sec. Bernhardt’s responses.
Further Questions Secretary Bernhardt Has Not Answered:
1. Mr. Secretary, during last week’s Senate Appropriations hearing, you told Senator Udall that roughly half of BLM employees (80 of 173) accepted reassignment. Did you know that while you were testifying before the Senate, your Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget Susan Combs testified before the House Natural Resources Committee that only “one or two” people had left the agency rather than accept reassignment? Did you know that Acting Director Pendley has claimed that roughly two-thirds of employees had accepted reassignment? Are your lieutenants being dishonest or just disorganized? The reckless BLM move lacks a plan or purpose. Just last week, an internal government watchdog shared a report that the bid to move the bureau West lacked an actually supported reason and failed to do a thorough cost-benefit analysis. In fact, former White House Chief of Staff Mulvaney said that the move was an administration ploy to force career employees to leave agencies. Sec. Bernhardt previously went as far as threatening to withhold resources from career employees that you expect to uproot their families and move across the country if Congress failed to fund the unjustified relocation. It’s unclear if there is any purpose at all behind the BLM move other than benefiting the interests of Sec. Bernhardt’s former lobbying clients as well as the extractive corporations that seek unfettered access to exploit America’s public lands and shared resources.
2. Given your full-throated endorsement of Wiliam Pendley’s leadership at BLM during last week’s Senate Appropriations hearing, do you believe the president should adhere to the U.S Constitution by nominating him to be the permanent director of the BLM? If not, do you think it’s okay for the president to continue violating the U.S. Constitution by denying the Senate an opportunity to hear from Pendley and vote on his confirmation? Further, will you commit to adhere to the U.S. Constitution by submitting nominees for both the BLM and National Park Service, two critical positions that have not had confirmed directors since the beginning of the Trump administration? The appointment of Pendley was a slap in the face to not only Americans but long-serving BLM career officials who adamantly spoke out against his leadership. He holds extremist views, touts a 17-page recusal list, and even claimed that his own boss, President Trump, wasn’t fit to fill Reagan’s boots.
3. Mr. Bernhardt, during last week’s Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Senator Leahy asked what you have done with the $1 million dollars you were given to expand the agency’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request office. You said the FOIA office has made “many new hires.” If the FOIA office has been expanded, as you say, can you explain why just last month, Interior wrote to one FOIA litigant, “as a consequence of recent staff departures, [the OS FOIA] office is now operating with only 2 full-time federal employees and 1 federal contractor having a workload of 40 litigations and over 21,000 pages to review per month”? Interior’s FOIA program is currently under investigation by the Inspector General for allowing political appointees to tamper with FOIA requests. Previously, an NPS FOIA officer flagged the difficulties of the political awareness review process and told their superiors that it delayed document production. WVP has been forced to file numerous lawsuits after Interior failed to fulfill public document requests within the statutorily required timeline, including a recent suit for Bernhardt’s communications with his former clients. Litigating public records requests instead of fulfilling them in the statutorily required timeline wastes taxpayer resources.
4. Mr. Secretary, the Trump administration has plowed ahead with not only historic rollbacks to public land protections but also orchestrated the elimination of critical protections for America’s air, water, and lands, turning the clock back on environmental protections to a bygone era that ignores the ramifications of such decisions. Many of these decisions have been done at the behest of extractive special interests, often against the will of impacted communities, public comments, and public opinion. If your agency values public comment and community input, as you have often espoused, why does your Department, time and again, ignore any voice that expresses concerns contrary to your special interest objectives? President Trump ushered in the largest reduction of public land protections in American history by illegally shrinking two Utah national monuments despite overwhelming opposition by local communities and the public. The administration has also gutted nearly 100 environmental protections, including bedrock protections like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Migratory Bird Treaty, and previously implemented sage grouse protection plans. Americans across the country have, in turn, spoken out furiously against these destructive changes, but Interior, with the support of President Trump, continued onward. Even the court’s system ruled against an attempt to limit public comment when it comes to energy leasing. What’s worse? Interior wants to stop studying the long-term environmental impacts decisions would have on America’s public lands, including severely limiting, if not eliminating, public notice and participation. Further, the administration is building Trump’s vanity border wall through sacred Native American land despite widespread public and community outcry. Ironically, Sec. Bernhardt has continued to push the empty BLM headquarters relocation talking point that it will ‘provide a greater on-the-ground understanding and will also foster better partnerships with communities and organizations there.’
Unsurprisingly, Interior’s proposed budget seeks to provide for the development of further oil and gas projects on public lands. Trump’s budget also includes some $1.5 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies for uranium mining corporations. This is not the first time the Trump administration has proposed major cuts to Interior’s funding and zeroing out the LWCF. Just last year, Sec. Bernhardt defended Trump’s budget proposal that tried to gut Interior’s appropriations by some 14 percent.
Sec. Bernhardt rarely sits down with the press. He is known for avoiding Congressional oversight and accountability efforts by stonewalling public records requests and plowing ahead without Congressional funding, input, or approval.