Interior Secretary Bernhardt Shares How He’s Promoting Federalism, Opening Up Land for Hunting

The Interior Department is relocating the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, D.C., to Colorado. So why move a federal bureaucracy to the other side of the country? Interior Secretary David Bernhardt discusses that, federalism, opening up 1.4 million acres for hunting and fishing, and more. Read the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

We also cover these stories:

  • President Donald Trump’s feud with “the squad” continues.
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  • Some liberal lawmakers are now announcing their preferred pronouns.

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Kate Trinko: Joining us today is Secretary David Bernhardt, head of the Interior Department. Secretary Bernhardt, thanks for joining us.

David Bernhardt: Thank you for having me.

Trinko: You just announced that you’re moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado. It’s currently in Washington, D.C. What’s the reason behind the move?

Bernhardt: About two years ago, the secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, began to develop a plan for reorganization. And that plan is driven by one simple premise: How do we better serve the American people throughout the Department of the Interior?

So his plan involved some regional restructuring, which we did last year and completed. It also involved some concepts of realigning people in the west.

Most of Interior’s land, and our responsibilities, are mostly in the western United States. We manage 1 in every 5 acres of land in the United States, and then about 1.7 billion acres on the Outer Continental Shelf. And most of BLM’s land, that’s the Bureau of Land Management, most of the land that they manage actually is in the west.

So he was interested in looking for opportunities and a plan that would allow us to highlight an idea that other members of Congress had been thinking of for a while, which was a move west.

When I first looked at the plan after I came in as the secretary, I began with a couple of questions. And the first question was, we have wonderful people working at BLM here in D.C., and we need to make sure that those jobs that should be done in D.C. are absolutely done in D.C. because they’re mission critical.

So we evaluated every job in our leadership office and we said, “Is this, first, a job that is necessary to be done?” And then second, “If it’s necessary, is it best located in Washington, D.C.?”

By doing that, we realized that over time the department had grown in ways that many of the jobs don’t need to be in D.C.

And on top of that, sending our leadership west would give them a perspective of being close to the lands that they manage, near the communities that have the lands surrounding them that they manage, and would make them be in a situation where they would have to travel a shorter distance to be within the leadership areas that they lead.

So we began a process of looking, came up with a plan, and we’ve submitted that plan to Congress, where they’ll have a period of time to look at it and see what they want to say to us. And then we’ll begin to implement, hopefully.

Trinko: I would just say, as someone who lives in the D.C. bubble, it might be interesting to see if some bureaucrats are thinking outside the bubble, literally. But we’ll see what happens.

Bernhardt: Well, we have a lot of great people and the reality is some folks in our organization have not wanted to be promoted because it would require them to move to Washington, D.C. And we have people that’ll be very excited to leave and we’ll have other people that aren’t, and we’ll work with them to try and find a good solution for everybody.

Trinko: You mentioned “respect” and be a “good neighbor” as the words that reflect your view on what federalism means for the Interior Department during your remarks at The Heritage Foundation earlier today. Can you expound on that?

Bernhardt: Sure. I believe that at the Department of the Interior—unlike a number of federal agencies that have delegated programs where they have an authority that’s been then delegated to the state for implementation, we have a few of those. But most of our work is authorizing things to take place on our land, or actually carrying out activities on that land, such as fighting fire.

So when we are taking an action, what we need to do is be mindful of that. We have neighbors, we have states, we have private citizens, we have localities, all that are potentially impacted by the decisions we make.

I grew up in a very small town in western Colorado; a community that was virtually surrounded by federal land. And as a result of that, the decisions that the local land managers made carried with them the hopes and dreams of my entire community at times. They also carried with them the hopes and dreams of individual families.

We have grazing permittees that have specific permits to graze cattle on the federal land. And so, you add something as simple as that to a major plant or a wind farm, it can have tremendous benefits, both positive and negative, for a local community.

So from my perspective, what we need to do is—and it’s not rocket science—act like good neighbors. We need to approach our neighbors, visit with them about what we’re doing, get their input, and see if we can come up with solutions that are best for the entire community.

Trinko: OK. And then you also mentioned the issue of the sage-grouse, you worked with seven states. Can you tell us about that example and how that worked?

Bernhardt: Sure. That’s a great example. … For almost 20 years there’s been great attention to the plight and the potential protection of the greater sage-grouse, which is a wide-roaming bird in the western United States that is susceptible to things like fire, drought, encroachment, in a variety of ways.

With the sage brush ecosystem being something that’s very important to a whole host of species, a lot of attention has been taken of the sage-grouse over time. And it is driven on one hand by the fact that the Endangered Species Act provides a regulatory mechanism to protect birds and other animals and fauna that merit protection under the act based on five factors.

The sage-grouse is not a listed entity, but at times it’s warranted listing. And the states, really at the beginning of the Bush administration, began an effort to work with the Department of the Interior on a whole host of efforts to ensure that we were doing things better for the sage-grouse, collectively.

Secretary [Ken] Salazar, when he was the secretary of the Department of the Interior, went out throughout these western states and said, “Look, I want to work with you and develop a plan that would be helpful, helpful to the sage-grouse and also respectful and responsible for you.”

He did that. He came up with a plan, at least this is what the governors told me; worked together on the plan. And then a different secretary came in and made some decisions that departed from those plans quite significantly.

So when Secretary Zinke became secretary, he heard a lot from the governors about those plans recognizing the need to be very responsible to the sage-grouse.

When I first joined the department, he came to me and said, “Look, I want you to go work on the sage-grouse issue and see if we can come to a better resolution.”

So what we did is we sat down with the various governors and we said to them, “Look, we need to be very responsible here for the sage-grouse, and recognize the tremendous investment that the states and local communities and federal government had put over a period of years into having a successful sage-grouse program, and we understand that you have problems with your plan, or maybe you don’t.”

And certain governors said to me, “I have no problem. I love my plan.” For those governors, we said, “OK, well, we’ll let you keep your plan.”

Other governors had concerns, some big concerns, some little. And what I did is I worked with each governor and said to them, “Look, you need to be responsible for the fact that what you asked for, you have to remember that you have neighbors here, too, that are all affected by your decision.”

These governors were incredible at making requests that were targeted and focused, but at the same time, recognized the broader need of everybody to be responsible.

It’s a great example of whether you’re a red state governor or a blue state governor, you can make a great decision, come to a good place, recognizing that you, too, could impact your neighbors in a particular way.

So they came up with some ideas. We tried to work with those ideas, went through a public process to sand those ideas and then finalized a plan.

We finalized the plans, the variety of plans, the governors stood there with us, red state and blue state in support of the changes for their plans. And I think that that is indicative of a whole host of things that we’re working on collaboratively with governors of all stripes.

Trinko: You recently opened up, I believe, 1.4 million acres for hunting and fishing that previously were off limits. Why did the Interior Department decide to do that and what does that mean?

Bernhardt: We opened and expanded access, so what that really means is we did something that’s really unprecedented.

Our Fish and Wildlife Service, we have 10 hunt and fish chiefs. And they went line by line through our regulatory programs and said, “Look, we all recognize that … a critical component of wildlife conservation is getting folks outdoors, conserving wildlife, and then engaging in hunting and fishing activity.”

Well, why is that? That’s because most of the funding for wildlife conservation comes from taxes and the sales of licenses, and sale of things that facilitate hunting and fishing. That is what the lion’s share of money for wildlife conservation is.

If you ask wildlife recreationists, hunters, anglers, photographers, what leads them to not go hunting or fishing, their No. 1 issue is public access. That’s No. 1. The proximity or lack of access to opportunity really leads to folks not wanting to do those activities anymore.

The other thing is the complexity of our regulations, which you would think is kind of silly, right? But it’s not. The hunting and fishing regulations of states are often very different than the federal government’s.

So what we did is we looked at all of our fish and wildlife property and said, “Hey, are there hunting and activities on these properties that we could be expanding or opening all anew?” And two, “Are there regulations where we and the states don’t line up? Then maybe we ought to try and align them up and make them less complicated.”

We did both of those things over this year. So right now on the street, we have proposed an additional 1.4 million acres that either we’re opening or expanding access to.

In doing that we’ll have many more hunting and fishing opportunities of different stripes for folks. And at the same time, we’ve tried to align our regulations so it’s less complicated for people to get out there.

Trinko: So, forest fires have been devastating the country, especially California in recent years. How does the Interior Department plan to deal with forest fires?

Bernhardt: Well, the president has given incredible direction with an executive order he signed last year that’s very aggressive on active management.

… As you know, we had terrible tragedies in California last year. The president visited those areas and came back, I think, convinced that he needed to give us clear direction and have us working with the states.

So, we do a very significant amount of treatment to try and actively manage our forests better. They’ve not been actively managed for a really long time.

Last year, I think we did 2,500 treatment projects. Over 170,000 acres have been managed for resource purposes. I just proposed a firebreak plan that has 11,000 miles of firebreaks proposed. And this year, we’ll be deploying about 4,500 firefighters to continue to fight fires.

That’s our focus, both the treatment and active management, and then fighting the fires when we need to.

Trinko: Well, thank you for joining us today, Secretary.

Bernhardt: Thanks a lot.

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