Rifle-raised Interior nominee highly regarded, ruffles some feathers
Rifle native David Bernhardt has been nominated to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. His friends say he is the best choice, but some locals are wary of his ties to industries doing business on public lands and have concerns.
President Donald Trump announced on Twitter Monday that he would nominate Bernhardt, who has served as DOI’s interim director for months, to go through the confirmation process in the Senate. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned the position in December.
Russell George, a Rifle native who has served as state legislator and led three separate state agencies under various governors, is confident Bernhardt is the right man for the job.
“I’m not sure I know anyone who is brighter, more skilled, or more knowledgeable. He’s totally qualified for the job, and as important, he has unquestionably perfectly ethics and always has,” George said.
George said he has known Bernhardt since he was going through the public school system in Garfield County, and has followed his career ever since.
Having someone with deep understanding of the region will be a benefit to the Western Slope, George said.
In a statement, Colorado’s Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner agreed.
“I’ve known David Bernhardt for many years and have worked closely with him over the last two years to advance Colorado priorities. As a native Coloradan from the Western Slope, David knows how important public lands are to our state and has a keen understanding of the issues Coloradans face every day,” Gardner said.
Eric Carlson, executive director of the West Slope Oil and Gas Association, applauded the president for nominating someone “who understands the Western Slope, the people, the traditions, and the importance of working together.”
“We look forward to seeing his nomination process and working with him on public lands and energy issues here in Colorado,” Carlson said.
Local public lands advocacy groups, however, expressed concern with Bernhardt’s record.
“Based on what we saw when he was working under Zinke, and his history of lobbying for corporate polluters and extractive industries, we are very concerned that Bernhardt will ramp up this administration’s efforts to get public lands into the hands of oil and gas companies, and eliminate regulations intended to benefit the public and the environment,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.
Another local group opposing the expansion of a stone quarry north of Glenwood Springs has raised concerns that Bernhardt is on the side of the unpopular proposal.
As Interior secretary, Bernhardt would oversee the Bureau of Land Management, which would be the first authority to evaluate quarry owner Rocky Mountain Resources’ mine expansion proposal.
Jeff Peterson, part of the Glenwood Springs Citizens Alliance which formed to oppose the quarry expansion, said there could be a conflict of interest in Bernhardt’s work as a former partner with law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck, which represented RMR.
“His financial disclosure shows he was paid more than $400,000 in 2017 by the Brownstein firm. Brownstein’s legal representation of Rocky Mountain Resources’ proposed mine expansion above Glenwood Springs makes the connections uncomfortably close,” Peterson said.
According to George, however, Bernhardt is honorable when it comes to addressing the concerns of voices opposed to government proposals.
“That’s politics. You take each of those people or entities or interests as you find them, and you deal with the facts and the truth,” he said.
“If you’re in the position that David is in, you do the very best you can for the very largest number of citizens. I believe he does that every time,” George said.