Washington • Interior Secretary nominee David Bernhardt says the department is intent on moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to the West and promised Thursday that he’ll protect public lands while cutting regulations and making it easier for Americans to access vast swaths of federal tracts.
Bernhardt, who is currently the acting secretary, faced a Senate confirmation hearing that broke along partisan lines with Republicans staunchly defending President Donald Trump’s nominee and Democrats picking him apart.
“I am not claiming you are Big Oil’s guy,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “Big Oil’s lobbyists are making that claim.”
While serving in various capacities at the Interior Department during the past 25 years, Bernhardt has also previously represented the oil and gas industry and refused to say Thursday that he would recuse himself on issues he had worked on in the private sector.
If confirmed, Bernhardt would replace former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who stepped down amid a series of allegations and ethics investigations. Bernhardt said that he has worked at the department to transform its ethics program and reorganize the alphabet soup of agencies under the Interior umbrella.
“I’ve also worked to thoughtfully execute the president’s agenda in the department,” Bernhardt testified. “The president has transparently provided us and Interior a very clear direction on his priorities. We have moved with dispatch to implement his vision.”
The nominee said Trump wants to have a storied conservation legacy second only to President Teddy Roosevelt.
That comment didn’t go over with Democrats who are concerned that the Interior Department has yielded to mineral extraction companies and slashed protections for treasured landscapes. These actions include Trump’s executive orders shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah by some 2 million acres.
Wyden argued that Bernhardt’s past work makes him ineligible for the job of overseeing public lands, national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refugees.
“You are so conflicted, you’re either going to have to recuse yourself so much I don’t know how you’re going to spend your day,” Wyden said on one hand. The alternative, he added, is that Bernhardt would be a brazen toady for the oil and gas industry.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, countered that what Democrats assert is a disqualifying history is actually an amazing benefit: Bernhardt knows the issues facing the department better than anyone.
“You really come to us with a set of qualifications and, again, experience that we really seldom see,” she said. “I think it’s unparalleled in terms of the time and the extent of your background in these areas.”
With Republicans holding 53 seats in the Senate, Bernhardt is expected to be confirmed. The committee will likely vote within the next couple of weeks to send his nomination to the full Senate.
If confirmed, Bernhardt plans to continue efforts to move the BLM headquarters somewhere in the West, possibly in Salt Lake City or Ogden or, as Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., pitched, Grand Junction, Colo.
The BLM manages about 247 million acres of public land, with most of that in the Western states and Alaska.
Environmental groups and others have pointed out that nearly all BLM employees — 8,403, according to the latest numbers — work outside the Washington area with only about 500 at the headquarters in the Interior Building.
Bernhardt says the department is building a “business case for moving” the BLM main office out West and noted that Trump’s proposed budget sets aside money to do so.
The nominee said that a 1936 job description for the department’s deputy secretary showed Congress at the time intended that person to spend half his or her time in the West.
“And I think with modern technology that’s pretty easy for a bureau director to do,” Bernhardt said. “And, as a matter of fact, most of them spend a lot of time in the West. And so I think their folks can, too, and it also adds an element of allowing us to get to places easier. … So there’s a lot of reasons to think about about it, and we’re trying to.”