Most Montanans caught the news that Congress passed the most significant public lands package in years: Permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Yellowstone Protection Act.
Senator Steve Daines has long seen these moments as opportunities to make political hay — he elbowed his way to the front of the line when the President signed the historic legislation. As it turns out, the President turned around and released a budget that defunded much of the initiative, making the photo-op a bit awkward.
If Senator Daines wants a real opportunity to do something for public lands conservation, he should vote against Trump’s corrupt pick to lead Interior: Former lobbyist David Bernhardt — the embodiment of what’s wrong with the federal government as he has spun through the revolving door as a bureaucrat turned special interest lobbyist and back again.
What makes Bernhardt’s nomination so troubling is not only his history of being a part of the department’s leadership during some of its darkest days when convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff roamed the halls wielding influence but that, all told, he is simply the most conflicted cabinet nominee in recent history.
As it stands, Bernhardt has some 27 special interest conflicts before Interior, ranging from oil and gas corporations and monied casinos to lobbying firms and influential water districts seeking to reignite Western water wars. His list of conflicts is so long that he needs to carry a pocket-sized notecard to remind himself. Despite his proclaimed recusals, many of Bernhardt’s former special interest clients appear to have benefited from decisions at Interior since he began.
Senator Daines should not allow the same culture of corruption we experienced under Zinke to continue. Bernhardt’s record shows that he’s more interested in making sure special interests reap windfalls from departmental actions than in preserving Montana’s public lands and wildlife.
If his conflicts weren’t enough for Daines to vote no, Bernhardt’s influence as deputy director and acting Secretary has had detrimental impacts on Montana.
Bernhardt led the charge in rolling back the cooperative sage-grouse management plan, leaving a patchwork of regulatory uncertainty for rural communities. He’s mandated that agencies prioritize industrial oil and gas leasing over critical habitat. Under his directive, Interior even tried to auction off parcels in Montana’s cherished Big Hole Valley, home to herds of elk, mule deer and gin-clear trout river tributaries. He left our national parks unprotected during the historic shutdown causing untold damage and costs to gateway communities.
It is abundantly clear that Bernhardt is simply too conflicted to manage and protect America’s public lands. We must demand that Senator Daines stand with our public lands and Western way-of-life in rejecting Bernhardt’s nomination.
Chris Saeger is the executive director of the Western Values Project, which is based in Whitefish.