From our deepest canyons to our distinctive rock formations and mountain ranges, Arizonans love their public lands and outdoor spaces. According to the 2019 Conservation in the West poll, nearly 70 percent of Arizona voters want more emphasis on protecting sources of clean water, air quality and wildlife habitat while providing opportunities to visit and recreate on our national public lands. Only 20 percent preferred that Congress place more emphasis on producing more domestic energy by maximizing the amount of national public lands available.
That is why the prospect of David Bernhardt – whose Senate confirmation hearing approaches on March 28 – as Secretary of the Interior should be cause for great alarm in the Grand Canyon State.
The record shows that Mr. Bernhardt could not be farther away from the balance Arizonans want, where wildlife protections, clean waterways and appropriate energy development work in concert. His record as a former lobbyist for fossil fuel companies and now a leader at the Interior Department driving policies to expand drilling and strip wildlife protections, reveals so many conflicts of interest that Bernhardt admits he carries around a card to remind him of what they are. Nevertheless, since Bernhardt rejoined the Interior Department in 2017, it has made at least 15 policy changes, decisions or proposals that would directly benefit Bernhardt’s former clients.
In Arizona, from 2011 to 2015, Bernhardt lobbied on behalf of Rosemont Copper Co. for a proposed open-pit copper mine 30 miles southeast of Tucson. The EPA warns that the mine will pollute surrounding air and water supplies with toxic metals, which would severely impact local economies dependent on outdoor recreation and tourism. The mine has faced more than 11 years of legal battles from understandably concerned environmentalists and tribal nations.
Regionally, in his role as Deputy and now Acting Secretary of Interior, he has among other things taken aim at weakening the Endangered Species Act, reversing protections for the imperiled sage grouse; offered oil and gas leases next to national parks, national monuments, and national historical sites; and played an important role in the reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. In his tenure as DOI Solicitor in the Bush administration, he spearheaded the campaign for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Veterans, who often find that the great outdoors is a medicine that helps to heal the after effects of battle, have taken particular notice of the threat posed to the quality of outdoor experiences. In nature, veterans experience a sanctuary, free of stresses and uncertainties, a place with no worries where they can relax. Many returning from military duty to their favorite outdoor places find a release they haven’t known for a long time. It’s often a transformative experience and the first page in a new beginning.
With David Bernhardt defending energy interests for decades, it’s highly unlikely he will suddenly change his views overnight to become equally interested in land conservation and wildlife protection, let alone transformative experiences. The evidence shows he is far too skewed to lead Interior with any kind of balanced decision-making.
Arizonans across generations, faiths and political affiliations make it clear in numerous bipartisan polls they want their precious public lands and outdoor recreation access protected. We remember Interior Secretaries Stewart Udall and Bruce Babbitt, Arizona voices who genuinely cared about the lands they were charged with administering. With David Bernhardt leading Interior we will be confronted with the opposite: an appalling imbalance of energy development policy over sensible conservation. We ask members of the Senate to carefully examine his record of long-standing energy industry ties and seriously consider whether David Bernhardt is at all capable of fulfilling Interior’s mission: to conserve and manage the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people.
Kate Hoit is the California State Director for the Vet Voice Foundation.
Dan Shilling is former executive director of the Arizona Humanities Council, a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran and Arizona resident since 1980.
Editor’s note: This commentary has been revised to include references to Stewart Udall and Bruce Babbitt and update Dan Shilling’s bio.