Never underestimate the power of public lands.
Take this incident from David Bernhardt’s childhood, when as a boy in Colorado, he visited the majestic Mesa Verde National Park. The visit was inspiring, something he never forgot.
Years later, as an adult — secretary of the Department of the Interior — Bernhardt went to Chaco Culture Historical Park to see firsthand the abandoned ruins threatened because of the increase in oil and gas drilling in the area. “I was stunned,” he said, speaking to New Mexican editors and a reporter during a visit to Santa Fe on Tuesday.
Meeting with Indian leaders along with Sen. Martin Heinrich — who voted for his confirmation — Bernhardt promised a temporary reprieve. He delivered. For now, there is a one-year moratorium on oil and gas lease sales around Chaco, a respite while federal land managers put together an updated land use plan.
The moratorium also gives Congress the opportunity to act and place into law protections for what is a treasure to tribal peoples locally, to the nation and to the world. If unfettered oil and gas exploration continues to be allowed, we will lose too much that can never be recovered.
The respite, temporary though it is, shows that Bernhardt is a secretary who does not completely abandon one of the important missions of the Department of Interior, to manage our common heritage — among them, natural resources, cultural sites, water and wildlife refuges. Interior also oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which handles tribal matters, and the moratorium at Chaco is one in which Interior’s missions convened.
During the Trump era, the department’s mission has been more singular, focused on expanding energy production on federal lands wherever and whenever possible. While Bernhardt, as a grown man, remembers the magic of Mesa Verde seen through a child’s eyes, he embraces the mission of the president who appointed him 53rd secretary of the Department of Interior.
“He was very specific about policies regarding Interior,” Bernhardt said.
Developing energy resources was to be a priority. That has never changed. And it won’t, unless the American people choose someone other than Donald Trump as president in 2020.
Until and unless that happens, the Department of the Interior will continue its policy of all energy, all the time. The restructuring of the agency, with jobs moved to the West from the D.C. area, will proceed. To be honest, some of the personnel moves discussed appear to make sense — Bernhardt’s stated goal is putting more feet in the field instead of in offices in Washington. He wants to reduce, he said, what has been a “big disconnect between some of our policy thinkers and our range managers.”
Of course, as with any move, there are the obvious consequences and those that surface later — critics believe the mandated moves West are a ploy to force out long-time employees to retire or quit, causing a brain drain. There is something unsettling, too, about the new Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., being in the same building as oil and gas companies.
That is the Department of the Interior in the Trump age. Bernhardt has beefed up his ethics staff, is committed to following the rules and proudly points out that he has worked for the federal government longer than any other industry, including his former work in oil and gas. But he — and his boss — want to unleash America’s energy potential. Period. What that means for public lands will be someone else’s problem to solve.
Elections, as they say, have consequences.