Back in 2016, candidate Donald Trump said he opposed a Republican bill designed to grease the wholesale transfer of America’s public lands to states. “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great,” he told Field & Stream, “and you don’t know what the state is going to do.”
It turned out that, on the contrary, Trump very much liked the idea. He got to work on it in his first month as president. And he named Ryan Zinke, a zealot for privatizing public land, as the head of the Interior Department. The remarkably corrupt Zinke had to resign. Trump now wants Zinke’s No. 2, David Bernhardt, to take over Interior and continue the mission.
With Bernhardt’s help, the administration radically shrunk two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Formerly an oil and mining lobbyist, Bernhardt also drafted the plan to open over 9 million acres of sage grouse habitat to oil, gas and mining. The sage grouse is a candidate for the endangered species list. And the companies would no longer have to pay into a habitat protection fund.
Here’s how the game works: First give the land to the states. When that happens, the bills for fire control and other land management go to state taxpayers. State officials then say: “We can’t afford that. We’d have to raise taxes.” So they sell the gorgeous Western scenery to the world’s superrich. Other acres go to oil and gas companies at bargain prices. These are the interests that had been funding the politicians all along.
“No trespassing” signs rapidly appear. And the American people — hikers, dog walkers, paddlers, hunters, anglers — lose their right to a natural heritage that used to be free.
Many Western politicians talk as though the federal government grabbed the land within their state borders. They have it backward. The federal government owned that land before their states were states. Of course, local needs should be taken into account in deciding how that land is used. Fortunately, the federal government provides for a good deal of community input.
Whattabout Barack Obama? Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, a Bernhardt fan, charged that Obama’s interior secretary Sally Jewell had worked for an oil company. Jewell did work as an oil engineer for three years. She then went to Rainier Bank, which she advised to steer clear of the oil and gas sector (good counsel at the time). Her big job, however, was chief operating officer of REI, seller of outdoors gear.
Outdoor recreation companies are avid promoters of protecting the environment, for obvious reasons. They are also an $887 billion-a-year industry employing 7.6 million Americans, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
The Obama administration did designate some sensitive public land for industrial purposes but with greater restrictions on construction of pipelines and roads. Drilling during sage grouse mating season was banned.
To obscure his controversial history, Bernhardt has been playing the hunter’s best friend. He talks a lot about “considering” protections for big game species. He just announced he’d expand a Zinke-era order to protect migration corridors.
As we’ve learned, orders are not actions. In the year since the order, nearly 20 percent of the Interior Department leases to oil and gas have been within these corridors. In New Mexico, 82 percent of the leases threaten mule deer, elk and pronghorn migrations. The slashing of Bears Ears opens a premier elk hunting area to industrialization.
And don’t you love that picture of the bearded Washington, D.C., lobbyist out in the field in camo, landing a moose?
With Republicans holding a Senate majority, Bernhardt’s confirmation is all but guaranteed. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.