Western states need to hold Interior secretary Bernhardt accountable

Western states need to hold Interior secretary Bernhardt accountable
© Greg Nash

As the keepers of most of our public lands and national monuments, Western states play a critical role in opposing any efforts to undermine protections for those lands, including and especially efforts pushed and requested by special interests and mega-lobbyists.

Given that the person responsible for watching over these public lands is himself a former lobbyist, it is critical that Western governors hold Interior Secretary David Bernhardt accountable for orchestrating the historic damage being done to our public lands and wildlife.  

Just six months ago, Bernhardt, with some 26-known conflicts of interest, moved from behind the bureaucratic curtains to center stage in America’s public lands management debate. Despite his relative anonymity, Bernhardt has been the mastermind behind the largest reduction of public lands protections in history under the Trump administration — actions that have benefited many of the same special interests that use to line his pockets.   

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Western governors need to side with the Western families who are counting on them to demand accountability on a host of decisions crafted by Bernhardt often contrary to states’ wishes.

It started when Bernhardt gutted the largest collaborative habitat protection management agreement in history by mandating federal changes to state plans. Bernhardt eliminated over 9 million acres of critical wildlife habitat protections to allow irresponsible development, threatening sagebrush landscapes that are vital to over 1 billion dollars in economic activity. The development is happening in the same wildlife migratory corridors Bernhardt had vowed to protect.

Making matters worse, Bernhardt made it optional for extractive corporations to compensate for the damage they’ve done to habitat in the pursuit of their own bottom line. That, again, forced Western governors to pick up the pieces and institute a patchwork of regulatory guidelines to ensure corporations clean up after themselves.

In Bernhardt’s rush to seemingly appease his former clients in the oil and gas industry by leasing public land, the federal government and taxpayers are only seeing a nominal return, with noncompetitive leases going for less than a cup of coffee per acre. That 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.

The Trump administration and Bernhardt have also damaged Western states’ economies during the historic government shutdown when national parks were closed or understaffed, countless other federal employees were furloughed and contractors went unpaid. If stripping protections for 13.5 million acres of public lands wasn’t enough, Trump and Bernhardt are still considering shrinking or eliminating nine more national monuments, primarily in the West. He’s even failed to include Western governors on the department’s reorganization plans.

Bernhardt will undoubtedly pull from the same bag of tricks he used as a lobbyist to try to appease Western governors, but they shouldn’t be fooled — this regime is recklessly undermining our American birthright of accessible public lands that will have lasting impacts now and for future generations. Western governors must side with Western families and hold the Trump administration’s most conflict swamp creature accountable for the damage being done to our outdoor heritage. 

Chris Saeger is the executive director of Western Values Project, a nonprofit based in Whitefish, Montana, that defends America's public lands through research and public education in order to hold policymakers and elected leaders accountable for jeopardizing the West's outdoor heritage.