Interior Secretary David Bernhardt Explains Fight to Preserve America’s History

A battle is raging for the future of our nation as “extremists and criminals literally try to rip out [statues and other monuments] to destroy the history of America,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says.

Bernhardt joins the podcast to explain how he is working alongside President Donald Trump to protect monuments that tell the story of America. The interior secretary also discusses the president’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act and how the administration is preserving our national parks.

We also read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about an 8-year-old boy who started an organization to serve veterans, seniors, and others in need. 

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Rob Bluey: We are joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. He leads an agency with more than 70,000 employees who are responsible for 20% of our great country’s lands, everything from national parks and monuments to wildlife, refuges, and other public lands. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us today.

David Bernhardt: It’s great to be here today.

Bluey: I had the opportunity to travel with Vice President [Mike] Pence on Air Force Two on his recent trip to Florida. And I heard him say that the choice we face is whether America remains America.

I know that this is something that’s been on your mind as well. You’ve written about it, spoken about it, this issue of vandalism and anti-American attacks and our statues and monuments. Could you tell us and our listeners what steps that you’re taking at the Interior Department to defend our history and heritage?

Bernhardt: Absolutely. As you pointed out, one of the jobs of the Department of the Interior is to tell America’s story. And there’s nothing worse perhaps than watching extremists and criminals literally attempt to rip statues and monuments that were carefully placed after great deliberation on a federal property and having extremists and criminals literally try to rip them out to destroy the history of America.

The reality is, as we look at these attacks, these attacks are widespread and they’re not something that you could identify a justification for them.

For example, we’ve had a monument of Gandhi defaced. We’ve had Ulysses S. Grant defaced and destroyed. We’ve had the World War II Memorial defaced, the Lincoln Memorial defaced, and on and on and on and on. What these criminals have done is literally try to attack America’s history.

Now, the reality is the president has done two things that are very, very significant. The first is he issued an executive order to federal agencies, but it’s also a message to the criminals who want to engage in this destruction.

That executive order says, to me specifically, “Please make sure that you’re protecting these monuments and do it. If you need additional resources, ask other agencies for them. If we have a crime committed at a monument, you investigate that crime. We track down the criminals and we prosecute them to the full extent of the law and the legal penalties here are quite severe, both criminally and civilly.”

So, the president did that and that’s clear direction. It means that you attack a federal property, don’t think it’s a freebie. It’s not a layup.

Secondly, the president has taken the incredible step of saying, “Look, we are also proud of American exceptionalism and we need to highlight as many great individuals in our society as appropriate. We shouldn’t necessarily be tearing monuments down. What we should be doing is recognizing those exceptional individuals.”

… At the steps around Mount Rushmore, he directed us to engage in developing a task force to look at improving the way we highlight exceptional Americans.

He directed us to begin the establishment of a national garden of American heroes and asked for options of where that garden may be and identified that the first 30 heroes would be presented in his executive order, but we can add many more, between a hundred to a thousand more.

So we’re right now engaged in looking all over the country to find the optimal location. And at the same time, we’re engaged in a process of soliciting from governors and from county commissioners and others potential names of exceptional Americans that should be memorialized in this great garden. And what we have happening right now is we’re getting tons of suggestions on optimal locations.

At the same time, we’re getting tons of suggestions on potential names. And as a matter of fact, I think we’re about to put up a website that allows people to submit names they want. A number of governors have already submitted locations and names and that will continue.

I think what we’re going to find is that there are so many exceptional stories about exceptional Americans throughout our history, whether they contributed to law, philosophy, science, sports, music, the arts. And I think that what the president is doing here is recognizing that perhaps there are more stories to tell than we currently tell, and let’s get on with telling those great stories. And I’m really excited about it.

We’re also engaged in a process of working with communities to deal with statutes that have been destroyed. So we’re in negotiations with a number of folks about how we might be able to assist them with those. And the bottom line is we’re not going to stand for radical, violent criminals trying to destroy our property or our history.

Bluey: Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for sharing all of that information. It’s exciting to hear that the public will have an opportunity to weigh in with their suggestions. And we certainly look forward to that opportunity.

As somebody who grew up in upstate New York, not far from Fort Stanwix, which is the national park service site in Rome, New York, I can tell you from my own personal experience how important it was to learn our history from visiting these types of locations.

So, certainly protecting them and defending them is an important piece, not only for our American history, but for future generations that are to come and want to learn and see what the contributions were and how they can make America better.

Bernhardt: Absolutely. And the president and the Trump administration recognize that we’ve contributed so much, not only to American society as a people, but really to the world, the notions of freedom, liberty, God-given rights, a commitment to the rule of law. And we’re not going to let people criminally destroy those items that provide inspiration and solace to all of us.

Bluey: Well, Mr. Secretary, you had a big moment recently when the president signed the Great American Outdoors Act. You wrote a recent column for Fox News calling the new law a “generational win for conservation.” Can you explain to our listeners the law’s significance?

Bernhardt: Well, it’s incredibly significant. And it’s really about promises that have not been kept for a very long time.

To just give you some history, all the way back in 1964, Congress passed legislation that would establish a specific fund that money would go into, from various items, and amended that in the late ’60s to include revenue from outer continental shelf leasing oil and gas.

The compromise was, at that time, … we’ll have this fund, the fund will be made up of fees from oil and gas revenue, and then that money would be spent on recreational facilities, on land conservation efforts, both through the federal government and also through state and local government.

And in the entire life of the fund, it was almost never the case that Congress appropriated the money that they committed to, which, at the time, was $900 million a year. So this legislation keeps that promise. It permanently funds that effort.

The second thing it does is creates a new fund that will be made up of other energy revenues. And that fund will be devoted to ensuring that our public lands infrastructure, our national parks infrastructure, and even our Indian school infrastructure is brought up to the point that the deferred maintenance problem is addressed.

What I mean by a deferred maintenance problem is the government for years has simply let things be created and then [is] not taking great care of them. They’ve spent money on other things. And as a result of that, many of our structures and facilities and roads and water systems are incredibly deteriorated.

It’s like if you lived in a house for 60 years and never spent money to do those things that you needed to do to update it—like paint it, maintain it—the government often has deprioritized those processes to do other things.

As a result, the maintenance obligations have become, frankly, overwhelming. And so Congress stepped in and said, “Hey, we’re providing a specific fund up to $1.9 billion a year that can be used to address these historically large problems.” And it will make a very big difference over the next five years.

So this legislation in doing these two things and funding it the way it has been funded is this legislation is the biggest investment in conservation efforts certainly in my lifetime. And I believe it’s fundamentally unprecedented. No, no, there is no other instance of a conservation investment like this on the mandatory side of the government ledger.

Bluey: Thanks for that explanation. [I have] a couple of follow-up questions for you. I know that a number of organizations, including my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation, have called for other ways to address the maintenance backlog, such as adjusting park entrance fees, charging international tourists who don’t pay taxes maybe more, increasing concessions at parks. What opportunities do you see to increase revenues at parks and empower park directors to use that revenue in a way that they see fit?

Bernhardt: Well, I’m very bullish on those ideas. Here’s what we do know, that the fund created will not eliminate the maintenance backlog. I view it as sort of a down payment as we look to use all of the tools we have in our toolbox, which certainly includes user pays fees. That’s a basic notion that makes a lot of sense.

And even improving our partnership opportunities, our donation opportunities, and certainly our commercial alliances. We actually have the proposed regulations to modernize our concessions practices, which are those partnerships with business ventures.

So I personally believe that the private sector, the utilization of fees differently, and the creation of this fund are all a very harmonious part of ensuring that we have a sustainable park service for this century and the next century. So I’m a big believer that all of these tools are necessary to optimize where we need to be with the investments that we’re making.

Bluey: Now, Mr. Secretary, I don’t have to tell you this, but some on the left, including [former Vice President] Joe Biden, have called for a prohibition of oil and gas development on public lands. What kind of an impact would that have and how would it impact the states where this energy production takes place?

Bernhardt: Let me be very, very clear. When I look at what this administration has done on oil and gas, the Trump administration has been a great partner with states.

Up until the China virus, our revenues were very, very high, and we were doing great work. And it’s important to recognize that onshore, 48 cents of every dollar of revenue from an oil and gas rail goes right to the state. The states use that money for schools, for things that are their priorities.

The concept of the Green New Deal that’s been proposed in Congress and things like that up in Congress, the concept is that they would just completely take away the money that goes to the states, No. 1. But No. 2, it would have incredibly significant social dislocation issues.

Energy employment has been a primary driver in our economy in many of these communities and states. And to just say, “We’re not going to permit and authorize these activities take place on public land,” is simply nonsensical.

What I’ve often said is if somebody wants to do that, they should call the governor of New Mexico and ask her how she’s going to feel to lose a billion dollars a year out of her budget.

It’s completely impractical. It makes no sense. We need the energy. We need the economy. And on top of that now, every ounce of revenue we get from these lands, a portion of that revenue is going right back into the environment through these mechanisms that we just spent time talking about in terms of the Great American Outdoors Act. So we’re actually going to be benefiting conservation initiatives by having that revenue.

Bluey: Well, your administration, the Trump administration, has put a priority on regulatory improvement. You’ve reduced the time that it takes to complete an environmental impact statement and environmental assessments.

Can you tell us what this regulatory improvement, and certainty for those involved, means going forward? And what would you say to those critics who accuse you of prioritizing the industry over the environment?

Bernhardt: First off, let me take your last question first. We have not, and I repeat, we have not prioritized industry over the environment. What we’ve done is said, “We can have rigorous environmental standards and we can have clean air and water, and we can do those things while being bullish on the production and development responsibly of our energy resources.” And in doing that, we can have both.

I grew up in a community that had wonderful public lands and wilderness areas and at the same time, had natural resource development. You can do both. The president recognizes that. We know that.

So, No. 1, it’s a false choice, but No. 2, what we’ve done, what this president has done in terms of deregulatory efforts is completely unprecedented in any administration, even the phenomenal administrations like President [Ronald] Reagan.

So, when I look at the number of things that we’ve done, the president and the administration has just modified the right NEPA regulations, National Environmental Policy Act regulations, for the entire government. That has not been done in over 40 years.

We have modified our endangered species regulations in ways that have not been done since the [Endangered Species Act] was created. And we are fundamentally shifting to an element of predictability and certainty that, when I came into the Department of the Interior, people would tell me they did not want to conduct activities on federal lands because of the lack of predictability.

Last week, I was in the west and I had a person come up and say to me, “Do you know that now federal lands, because of their predictability and the improvements we’ve made to your processes, you know they’re now more attractive in certain states than state land or even private land?”

That’s how big of a difference this president’s had in creating a sane regulatory environment. And what that means is strong environmental protection, but at the same time, opportunities for red tape to not kill businesses and jobs and allow this economy to thrive. And that’s what happened.

Now we have the China virus and now the president is right back at building that wonderful economy back and Interior-managed properties will play a role in that.

Bluey: Well, let me ask you about this because last year the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, finalized a rule that would improve the implementation of the Endangered Species Act. This final rule would treat threatened and endangered species differently, but also would inform the public about the costs of species conservation and stop imposing critical habitat designations that wouldn’t even help some species.

Can you explain why this regulation is so significant and how it’s going to actually help improve species conservation?

Bernhardt: Absolutely. The reality is what we did is we took a very close analysis of the statute itself and how different agencies do things. On that, the Fish and Wildlife Service had one practice and the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA Fisheries, had a different practice that they used for exactly the same statute.

What we said is, “Which of those two is better?” And then we suggested that the better one would be the one that we use.

So the Department of the Interior actually adopted the same process that the National Marine Fisheries Service and NOAA had used for a very long time. And we did that because we realized that by having the ability to specifically tailor regulations for threatened listings to a particular problem, [that] would allow us to focus on the problem, the species, and get on top of those issues and not necessarily have an unfocused regulatory paradigm that was creating burdens, but really no benefit to the species.

What we’ve been able to do with that specific change is focus on the priority and efforts in conservation that we need to improve the species. We also, by doing it, ensure that there’s an opportunity for incentivizing good activities that would be good for the species. So encouraging them by giving them some regulatory protection.

It’s actually a great example of adopting a best practice, having a best practice that’s focused on dealing with the issue at hand, but not creating unneeded burdens just because something was about to be listed. And so I think over time, people are going to find that that was a very significant change in a positive direction, both for communities as well as species. And so we’re very excited about that.

What’s really interesting here, this is something that an administration had not done for 40 years, and we’re not even close to done, we’re really in the process now of engaging in sort of our second round of deregulatory efforts.

We’re just now really beginning to have a significant change in the culture of our regional field offices because it takes a long time to institutionalize change within the government. And so I really think we’ve made tremendous deregulatory changes that are tremendously positive, but I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface.

We have so many opportunities because America, the federal government for 40 years has been unidirectional in thinking, “We just need more and more and more.” And President Trump’s administration has the opportunity to come in and say, “Look, what is the purpose of what we’re doing? How can we do it, achieve that purpose in the best possible way to get the best outcome, while at the same time, doing it in a way that is not unnecessarily burdensome?”

And we’re looking at every single business process we have in the department, asking those questions, and the amount of improvement in the department is significant. But if you just take us as Interior and think about how small we are to the whole of government, and then think that every single department and agency is going through the same evaluation, we are really having a transformative effect that it’s not something that you’re going to find all over cable news, but the reality is, it’s an incredibly big change in the federal government that’s taking place. And it’s incredibly significant.

Bluey: Mr. Secretary, thank you for telling us about it. It certainly is. I think it’s an underreported or unreported story for sure. It’s one of the reasons that we wanted to highlight it on The Daily Signal.

Also, you personally are somebody who is an avid hunter and fisherman, somebody who cares about the environment. You have a long history of doing so. So I appreciate you sharing those with us, those principles that are guiding your work and the efforts that you’re taking at the Interior Department. It’s a real honor to have you on “The Daily Signal Podcast” again. Thank you for returning and I wish you the best in the work that you continue to do.

Bernhardt: Thanks a lot. Thanks for having us, really appreciate it.

Bluey: Thank you.

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