Interior’s Bernhardt Overhauls Grouse Plans to Benefit Special Interest Pals

Today, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its plan to mandate an overhaul of state-level habitat management plans for the greater sage-grouse. The revised plan breaks many of the compromises crafted in the 2015 cooperative plans that were finalized under the previous administration.

The overhaul was run by Deputy Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and corporate lawyer.

“David Bernhardt spent years in the private sector advancing the policy goals of special interests who profit off our public lands,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of Western Values Project. “Despite his clear conflicts, Zinke put him in charge of ripping apart the plans just to help those very industries that Bernhardt used to work for, all at the expense of habitat, wildlife, and the thousands of Americans who asked Interior to honor the deal and protect our way of life.”

In 2015, the 11 Western states that contain the bird’s habitat agreed to a sage grouse management plan, the result of a collaborative effort between multiple stakeholders that marked the greatest land conservation effort in U.S. history. The Interior Department began reworking the state-level plans in June 2017 to ensure they aligned with Secretary Zinke’s and the Trump administration’s policy of energy dominance. Western Values Project’s analysis of thousands of pages of public documents found the extent of industry’s influence over the entire process.

A recent New York Times story, based in part on Western Values Project research, exposed the extraordinary amount of access that the oil and gas industry had to the Interior officials who were conducting Interior’s sage grouse review last summer, and Interior staff’s willingness to grant industry requests.

Ex-lobbyist turned Interior Deputy David Bernhardt was charged with overseeing the greater sage-grouse management plans overhaul shortly after his controversial confirmation, an assignment that has raised red flags as one of his former lobbying clients, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, was one of the industry groups pushing hardest to have sage grouse protections rolled back. IPAA even signed onto a letter thanking Bernhardt for his efforts that benefited the oil and gas industry.

Meanwhile, Westerners have been unhappy with the review. In January, co-chairs of the Western Governors Association Matt Mead and John Hickenlooper sent a letter to Deputy Secretary Bernhardt expressing their disappointment that Western states weren’t being included in the changes Interior was making to sage grouse protection efforts.

Americans have submitted hundreds of thousands of comments urging the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to honor the deal that was agreed to in 2015. Whether or not Interior was valuing public input on the sage grouse review was called into question in March, when it was revealed that nearly 100,000 public comments submitted to BLM hadn’t been counted.

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