National parks have long been synonymous with the state of Colorado, providing protection for some of our most iconic landscapes and welcoming visitors from across the world.

Despite the thriving tourism (more than seven and a half million visitors in 2018), our parks are facing a myriad of threats unlike any we’ve seen in modern history. Climate change, a backlog of desperately needed maintenance and shrinking park borders all pose enormous challenges to the continued protection and preservation of our most treasured places.

Sarah Bransom

But one lesser known threat is the sheer amount of land that the Trump Administration is leasing to the oil and gas industry, often right on the doorstep of national parks. And David Bernhardt, Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of the Interior, is this industry’s biggest champion.

I had the privilege of serving as a National Park Service employee for over 20 years. During my time with the NPS, I worked on a wide variety of projects including bison in Yellowstone, fisheries in the North Cascades and water releases from the Glen Canyon Dam.

But never in my time have I seen the leadership at the Department of the Interior (DOI) so reckless with the management of lands outside of park borders. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, DOI has prioritized the development of oil and gas above all else. The agency has put it above protecting communities, wildlife and some of our most treasured landscapes.

Since I retired, I have also been an active member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, an organization with more than 1,600 members representing nearly 40,000 years of experience in protecting and managing America’s most precious and important natural and historic places.

Many of us have worked with Mr. Bernhardt in his various roles at the Department of the Interior over the years, and have become familiar with his troubling policy focus, questionable management priorities and ethically dubious relationships beyond DOI, particularly to his former colleagues in the oil and gas industry.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Under the Trump administration, Mr. Bernhardt, a Colorado native, has been behind the scenes pulling the strings for this pro-industry agenda. And now he is Mr. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior.

Mr. Bernhardt’s hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be held on Thursday, marking two years to the exact date since the administration publicly outlined their “energy dominance” framework that guides how oil and gas decisions are made.

In fact, the administration has already offered more than 17 million acres of land to oil and gas companies. This includes land parcels near national parks here in Colorado such as Dinosaur National Monument, Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Throughout his tenure at DOI, Mr. Bernhardt has shown that oil and gas is just about the only thing he cares about. He made his career representing the very industry and now stands to gain even more as Secretary of the Interior.

If he is confirmed, we can expect more of the same. And it might be more than our national parks can bear. His obvious devotion to the energy industry would result in long-term and possibly irreversible damage to our national parks for many generations to come.  

Despite recent court decisions to the contrary, Mr. Bernhardt continues to lead a process of decision-making regarding approval of energy development on public lands that excludes or minimizes the time for public input. National Parks cannot be successful if managed as “islands.”

Their preservation depends on good stewardship of adjacent landscapes, including prevention of inappropriate development that inevitably will harm park resources. The opposite is happening and will continue to happen under Mr. Bernhardt’s leadership.

We need a leader who will support the mission of the National Park Service and ensure our parks are left, “unimpaired for future generations.” Coloradans need a Secretary of the Interior who has a passion and commitment to protecting our national parks and public lands.

I am pleased that Sen. Michael Bennet has recognized Mr. Bernhardt is the wrong person to lead the Interior Department and has opposed his nomination. Unfortunately, Sen. Cory Gardner has pledged his support. I urge Sen. Gardner to reconsider. Clearly, Mr. Bernhardt is not the Secretary of the Interior that Colorado needs.

Sarah Bransom is a native Coloradan and former National Park Service employee. She serves on the Executive Council for the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.  

Special to The Colorado Sun