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Interior Secretary Bernhardt came home to Colorado — and the swamp monsters were waiting for him in Vail

Protest highlighted conflict over public lands policy as decision on where a new BLM agency HQ might land looms

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A protestor dressed as a swamp monster takes a selfie in Vail on June 10, 2019, where Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was keynote speaker at the Western Governors Association meeting. The protest, organized by Colorado Sierra Club, Conservation Colorado and other environmental organizations, involved people marching up the Vail bike path and kayaking down Gore Creek to draw attention to Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, who now oversees the national parks and public lands. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

VAIL — Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is looking at every job in the Bureau of Land Management to determine two things: Is the role essential? And does it need to be based in Washington, D.C.?

Once the newly confirmed secretary finishes answering those questions, he said, he can support the push to relocate the land agency to a Western state, closer to the nearly 250 million acres it manages.

Bernhardt, answering questions from a dozen state leaders at the annual Western Governors’ Association conference in Vail, declined to indicate a preference for any state. A decision is expected by September.

“At the end of that analysis, my expectation will be that I can tell Congress very clearly, ‘Here’s where I think these roles would be optimized and put to the greatest use’ and we’ll see if Congress agrees with that,” said Bernhardt, noting he expects “a substantial element of BLM folks in D.C. being repositioned.”

MORE: Bureau of Land Management more likely to relocate to Denver than Grand Junction, Polis says

“I think there is a great value in delegating greater accountability to the front lines of our departments, and we need to somehow find a way to put more resources on the front lines and then organizing in a way that will best serve the American people,” Bernhardt said.

Shortly after protesters wearing swamp-monster masks parading along a roiling Gore Creek voiced their angst about Bernhardt and support for public lands, a dozen Western U.S. governors lobbed softball questions to the cabinet member.  

Gov. Jared Polis and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert went first during the opening panel for the conference, asking Bernhardt about his plan to address the $12.6 billion backlog of deferred maintenance at national parks.

Bernhardt called the delayed investment in national parks “entirely unsustainable,” noting President Donald Trump’s Public Lands Infrastructure Fund directs energy leasing revenues toward park maintenance. For fiscal 2020, Trump’s budget includes $639.8 million for park service construction and deferred projects.

“My view is that we actually do it,” Bernhardt said. “Our infrastructure is crumbling … and it’s time to address that problem.”

Marching protesters, organized by Colorado Sierra Club, Conservation Colorado and other environmental organizations, wave signs in Vail, Colorado, on June 10, 2019, where Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was keynote speaker at the Western Governors Association meeting. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Former lobbyist “a walking conflict of interest”

An hour before the meeting, the Sierra Club hosted a public lands rally with a few dozen protesters calling Bernhardt “a walking conflict of interest” because of his previous job lobbying for oil and gas interests. Parading along a recreation trail behind the hotel under the watchful eye of hotel security and Vail police, the group decried Trump’s energy-dominant agenda for public lands that has increased oil and gas exploration and drilling.

Aaron Johnson with the Western Energy Alliance attended the rally as well, noting that oil and gas royalty payments to the U.S government support the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“Public lands can provide critical revenues for fixing up our national parks,” Johnson said.

Governors will collaborate on three fire issues

The confab at Vail’s Hotel Talisa kicked off with the governors’ association announcing its new partnership with Forest Service parent U.S. Department of Agriculture. The new collaboration reveals at least three areas where the Democrat and Republican state chiefs not only agree, but will work together.

First, the association’s governors and federal land managers are forming a wildlife disaster response program that coordinates federal resources available to communities after wildfire. The partnership also will work to reduce the threat of wildfire near power lines through a unified vegetation management program. And lastly, the new partnership will work together to eliminate cheatgrass and other invasive species across the Western U.S.

USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Jim Hubbard said the collaboration “will have the greatest impact in addressing critical risks” posed by wildfires, drought and invasive species.  

David Bernhardt. (Provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior)

Bernhardt fielded questions from nearly every governor, addressing his department’s work to grow hunting and fishing and align state and federal efforts on conservation and access. He noted last week’s announcement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with states to revise as many as 7,000 regulations that expanded hunting and fishing on 74 wildlife refuges and 15 national fish hatcheries across 1.4 million acres.

“Each state has some neat, new opportunities to get out and enjoy public lands, and we are excited about that,” he said.

Bernhardt urged the governors to partner with the federal government on the National Environmental Policy Act analysis of projects on federal land, saying his department has “flexibility if states want to be more involved in the NEPA process and even sharing NEPA responsibilities.”

Bernhardt said he sees opportunities to collaborate with states on NEPA and the Endangered Species Act. He said his department in the next few weeks will propose revised rules for endangered species “that have the potential to sand the rough edges of these laws.”

“My belief is that for a number of these areas of natural resources, if we sand some of the rough edges, the fear and tension in that climate will fall away and we can just focus on making big conservation gains,” he said, “Because everybody needs that and sometimes the conflict, frankly, is counter-productive to the ultimate goal.”

Opponents to gravel mine expansion are worried

Among the protesters who donned the now famous swamp-monster masks decrying Bernhardt and Trump’s push to ease regulations on public lands were members of the Glenwood Springs Citizen’s Alliance. The group is fighting plans to expand a gravel mine above town from about 20 acres to 320 acres.

The Mid-Continent Quarry is owned by Rocky Mountain Resources, a fledgling investment firm with close ties to Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm, the influential and politically connected Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Rocky Mountain Resources is seeking BLM approval to expand the mine, a decision that ultimately will land on Bernhardt’s desk.

Jeff Peterson, the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Citizen Alliance, has enlisted more than 1,200 residents, businesses and groups urging the city, county, state and BLM to scrutinize a proposal to expand the Mid-Continent Quarry bordering the popular Transfer Trail. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

And Bernhardt on Tuesday is scheduled to visit the BLM’s Colorado River Valley office in Silt, which is handling the mine proposal.

Citizen’s Alliance does not expect to have a chance to speak with Bernhardt, who answered questions only from governors and declined to meet with reporters on Monday in Vail.

“We want to remain fact-based and the voice of reason, so a protest may antagonize the situation and not be beneficial,” alliance president Jeff Peterson said.