Though he fondly remembers his first visit to ancient sites in the Four Corners region, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt would not say whether he planned to extend a one-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
In a wide-ranging interview with The New Mexican on Tuesday, Bernhardt — who heads the federal agency of some 70,000 employees that is charged with protecting about 500 million acres of public land — pointed out that he issued the moratorium on oil and gas leasing rights in the first place.
“Well, that moratorium exists because I put it in place,” he said. “I grew up in Rifle, Colo., and the first national park that I remember going to was Mesa Verde. It was an inspirational moment in my own learning, and it just made me ask the question, ‘Who are the Anasazis, and what does this mean?’ And I had no idea what to expect going to Chaco, but I was stunned at the significance of the properties we looked at. They are phenomenal.”
But Bernhardt, who noted there are ongoing efforts in Congress to include another moratorium in unfinalized budget legislation, added: “There are also members of these Pueblos and tribes that are concerned that depending on where we draw the line, it could affect their own mining interests.”
The park near Chaco Canyon is considered an epicenter of Native heritage and includes fragile archaeological ruins. It has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management — which Bernhardt oversees — reversed course in February, deciding to no longer offer about 1,500 acres at an oil and gas lease sale in March. It was the third time the Trump administration had planned to sell parcels near Chaco Canyon and then deferred the leases.
The 50-year-old Bernhardt, in Santa Fe on Tuesday to speak at an oil and gas conference, touched on a variety of subjects in a 30-minute interview, lauding the decision to move BLM headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo. He also defended his ethical integrity against criticism about his past as an oil and gas lobbyist amid an inspector general probe into complaints from eight Democratic senators and other groups. The criticism follows a New York Times investigation detailing how Bernhardt continued to push for a policy pursued by a former lobbying client.
“Look, I’ve been employed by the United States government substantially longer than I’ve been employed by any oil and gas company or any other client,” Bernhardt said. “But more importantly, I’m a lawyer who fully and appropriately understands that I’m here to serve the public. And that’s the only reason I took and engaged in this public service.
“And to do so, I have certain rules that I have to comply with. And I am rigorous in my compliance. I am meticulous. But I do have a policy view, and that policy view is shaped by my view that I fully support President [Donald] Trump’s policies and visions for conservation, stewardship and for resource development. And I’m gonna get up every day and do that. And there are people that fundamentally don’t like that, and so they’d like to weaponize ethics. But at the end of the day, I know what the rules are, and I follow them.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a consistent Bernhardt critic who voted against his nomination, said he’s confident Congress will approve language within budget bills to continue protecting the Chaco site.
After Tuesday’s event at Santa Fe Community College, Udall criticized Bernhardt over the ethics inquiry and for assisting in rolling back President Barack Obama-era methane regulations. He also slammed the secretary’s push for oil and gas drilling on public lands and not doing enough to thwart climate change.
“His department has a mandate through the law to be protecting the ecosystems and protecting the environment, and he’s not doing that,” said Udall, whose father, Stewart Udall, served as interior secretary from 1961-69 under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. “So he’s really failed.”