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The Fox in the Henhouse: Bernhardt at Interior

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Everyone has heard the old saying about “the fox guarding the hen house” — which generally means you wind up with a fat fox and dead chickens. That’s something Montana’s senators should keep in mind when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee weighs Donald Trump’s nomination of former oil, gas and mining lobbyist David Bernhardt to be the next Secretary of the Interior following the December resignation of ethics-plagued Ryan Zinke. And yes, that means Republican Sen. Steve Daines is going to have to decide if putting Trump’s raper-scraper in charge of 245 million acres of America’s public lands and their wildlife is in the best interests of his Montana constituents and future generations.

There’s no question that Bernhardt is very, very familiar with the structure and duties of the Department of the Interior. After all, the function of a lobbyist is to understand the law, rules, regulations and mission of the federal agencies with which they interact. And when it comes to industry lobbyists, make no mistake, their primary interest is to serve the interests of their clients.

Unfortunately for the rest of the populace, these highly skilled and very well-funded operatives generally have myopic vision when it comes to the ancillary consequences of their actions. In that regard, Bernhardt has already shown his true colors — and no surprise, they’re the color of money in the form of profits for extractive industries.

Since Bernhardt has already been inserted into the Interior Department, his track record is known — and it isn’t pretty. First off, as one might expect from a fossil fuel lobbyist, Bernhardt is a climate change denier. That, in and of itself, should be reason enough to disqualify him as the nation and planet struggle with ever-increasing impacts from an obviously warming climate.

But Bernhardt doesn’t stop there. As generally happens with industry lobbyists, one of their great targets in the lawmaking arena is getting rid of pesky regulations they consider “hurdles” for their clients. In Bernhardt’s case, that means gutting the Endangered Species Act under the rubric of “bringing it into the 21st century.” That’s not likely to happen with the new Democratic majority in the House, however.

Bernhardt has already upended the sage grouse conservation plan that was intended to keep the birds from being listed for Endangered Species Act protections. One can argue that the conservation groups who collaborated with industry to keep sage grouse from being listed got snookered. Reducing the 9 million acres of habitat formerly dedicated to sage grouse recovery by 80 percent means the Bernhardt fox has already doomed recovery efforts for the sage grouse hens.

Daines should consider that opening those millions of acres to more oil, gas and coal extraction is likely to push the sage grouse onto the endangered species list, where it will receive far more stringent restrictions on industry and agriculture than the discarded recovery plan.

Bernhardt’s loyalty to the fossil fuel industry doesn’t stop there, though. He’s also supporting opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling — despite the fact that the U.S. is now a net exporter of oil and gas.

By law, Bernhardt’s job is to manage and conserve our vast public lands for the “benefit and enjoyment of the American people.” So far, his track record indicates he thinks resource extraction industries are “the American people.” They are not. These lands belong to all 325 million Americans — and Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines should weigh that reality against the “extraction at any cost” credo of David Bernhardt, and vote against his confirmation.

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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