Memo: Western Governors Need to Hold Interior Secretary David Bernhardt Accountable

Western governors publicly criticized ex-mega lobbyist Interior Secretary David Bernhardt more than once during his recent tenure as the deputy secretary at Interior. There were good reasons for this: Just four days after his Senate confirmation, he became the subject of a multi-faceted investigation for multiple ethics violations. Now, the most conflicted member of Trump’s cabinet tapped by special interests, with some 26-known special interest conflicts, will keynote the Western Governors’ Association on Monday, June 10, 2019.

Western governors and their states are typically the first to feel the negative impacts of the policies and actions taken by Secretary Bernhardt’s Interior Department. With Bernhardt at the helm of Interior, Western states have seen decisions move forward behind closed doors, often with little or no input from their constituents. It’s been no secret that many Western governors have been frustrated with the direction the Interior Department has taken, and it all starts with Secretary Bernhardt.

Two of Bernhardt’s former colleagues from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Sarah Mercer and Mike Stratton, will be at the meeting and four employees of oil corporations who are members of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), a former client of Bernhardt’s, are also registered. IPAA member employees scheduled to attend include Bill Cadman from Whiting Petroleum Corporation, Kristen Lingley from Encana Oil & Gas Inc., Shane Schulz from QEP Resources, and Cam Toohey from Shell Oil Company. Bernhardt is recused from particular matters involving his former lobby firm and IPAA until August 3, 2019.

Western Values Project will be reminding Western governors and meeting attendees that Interior Secretary Bernhardt has already been tapped by special interests with a mobile billboard that directs viewers to learn more about the culture of corruption run amok at Interior under the Trump administration at

Will Western governors hold Bernhardt accountable for the lasting harm being done to public lands and the West’s outdoor heritage when he keynotes the Western Governors’ Association meeting?


Bernhardt led Interior during the government shutdown and left national parks open but unstaffed, leading to untold damage, lost revenue for parks and local businesses, while countless other federal employees were furloughed and contractors went unpaid – all impacting states.

Bernhardt’s efforts to please his former clients in the oil and gas industry by leasing every available acre of public land is hurting the West, and taxpayers are only seeing a nominal return. Noncompetitive leases going for less than a cup of coffee per acre. The firesale industry giveaway by Bernhardt means programs vital to Western states have seen their funding slashed or nearly eliminated by the Trump administration – all hurting the same rural communities impacted by development.

For instance, the most important public access and parks program in America, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, was gutted in Trump’s last three budget proposals that Bernhardt has supported. The program provides states with critical funding to enhance public lands and parks and has lost over one billion dollars due to the inaction.


Bernhardt was not Western governors’ pick for the secretary position. Shortly after the resignation of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, WGA re-issued a 2016 letter on December 19, 2018, encouraging President Trump to ‘nominate a sitting Western governor to the critical cabinet post of Secretary of the Interior.’ Trump ignored the request. Bernhardt eeked through Senate confirmation in what was the most controversial and contested Interior secretary nomination vote in history.


Bernhardt led Interior’s sage grouse review, which stripped away “protections from about nine million acres of sage grouse habitat, a move that in a stroke opened up more land to oil and gas drilling than any other single policy action by the Trump administration” — and a move that generated rebuke from Western governors.

Former GOP Wyoming Governor Matt Mead repeatedly criticized and expressed “disappointment” with Bernhardt for not including state and local leaders, including himself, in the sage grouse review process. “We understand that you are considering changing the Department’s approach to sage-grouse, moving from a habitat management model to one that sets population objectives for the states,” Mead wrote. “We are concerned that this is not the right decision.”

Similarly, former Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval “took issue with” one of Bernhardt’s sage grouse review team’s most “controversial” proposed changes, to set “state-specific population targets” rather maintaining a broad goal of “improving and restoring habitat.”

Utah GOP Governor Gary Herbert also said that Bernhardt’s proposed sage grouse policy changes were at “conflict” with Utah’s conservation plans, noting that some Western governors consider the sage grouse review one that “threatens to undermine a hard-won compromise” for the region.


The Western Governors Association (WGA) also criticized Bernhardt for not consulting governors on proposed plans to restructure the Department of Interior. After Bernhardt and Interior officials floated the reorganization plans, including one to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to an unknown location in the West, WGA sent a letter complaining that “Western Governors did not have the opportunity to hear in advance the basis for DOI’s proposal and consequently were not able to provide comments before the proposal was released to the public.” The original draft WGA letter also registered “significant procedural and substantive concerns with the proposed organizational changes to the DOI.”

It is unknown if Bernhardt or Interior responded to the letter or addressed the substantive concerns of Western governors.


Bernhardt was forced to walk back a poorly executed regulatory rollback after pressure from the Western Governors, who were not happy with the original directive by Bernhardt. In December 2018, Interior quietly issued a new Instructional Memorandum that superseded the previous guidance on compensatory mitigation (issued in July 2018 and since removed from the Bureau of Land Management’s webpage). This new policy tracks very closely with a WGA resolution on mitigation and seems to give states the ability to require compensatory mitigation on federal lands, though the BLM still cannot.

Compensatory mitigation, which is one of the pillars of Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2015 determination that an Endangered Species Act listing for sage-grouse was “not warranted,” would be optional, and would depend entirely on the willingness of industry and states to commit to and enforce compensatory mitigation requirements on federal lands.

Governors pushed back, stating that compensatory mitigation should ‘provide measurable and documentable habitat and conservation values, services and functions that are at least equal to the lost or degraded values, and services and functions caused by the impact.’ Now Western states have implemented their own patchwork of mitigation policies to protect sage grouse habitat.


Bernhardt’s also spearheading the department’s rollback of the Endangered Species Act contrary to wide support it has in many Western states. Polling done by Western Values Project found broad support for maintaining protections for endangered species in both Colorado and Arizona.

Within four months of his confirmation as deputy secretary, Bernhardt ordered the alteration of a biological opinion regarding the endangered delta smelt for a former client. He also suppressed a scientific report about the threat of pesticides to the survival of hundreds of endangered species. Several of his other former clients have requested and received favorable decisions detrimental to wildlife populations.


As the secretary of America’s largest land managing agency, Bernhardt has been focused on making sweeping reforms that negatively impact Western states, benefiting the same industries that he represented as a lobbyist. Bernhardt’s actions, whether it is the largest reduction of public land protections in U.S. history or opening industrial-scale development in migratory corridors and critical habitat that he vowed to maintain, show that he is beholden to special interests, if not, outright corrupt.

There is a reason Bernhardt’s Interior is desperately trying to thwart transparency and skirt public oversight of himself and his department – industry and lobbyists are dictating policies that are destroying the West’s vast outdoor resource, which provides lasting economic value to rural Western communities.

Western governors should stand with their states, constituents, rural communities, sportsmen and women, anglers, hikers, and outdoor participants of all strips in holding the most corrupt Secretary of Interior in history accountable. The West’s public lands and outdoor heritage are being exploited by a Manhattan real estate developer-turned president and an ex-mega lobbyist-turned Interior secretary.

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