President Donald Trump says he plans to nominate acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to lead the agency.
Bernhardt was confirmed as deputy secretary of the department by the Senate, 56-39, and began serving in his position Aug. 1, 2017. He then became acting secretary in January after then-Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned Dec. 15, when investigations into his real estate dealings began to pile up.
"David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!” Trump said in a tweet Monday.
Opposition to Bernhardt's nomination is expected in the Senate, but whether it's enough to prevent him from assuming the top job is unclear. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., tweeted Monday afternoon the nomination "is an affront to the department's mission of protecting our natural resources. We're talking about a fossil fuel lobbyist with a history of fighting against environmental protections. Americans deserve better."
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., however, said Bernhardt "understands the importance of access to our public lands, responsible energy development and our trust responsibility to Tribal Nations. I look forward to continuing to work together on important issues to Montana and the West!"
Bernhardt, a lawyer, held a number of positions at the Interior Department from 2001 to 2009, including as solicitor, deputy solicitor, and as then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s deputy chief of staff.
Before and after serving at Interior, Bernhardt was a lawyer at Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Schreck in Denver. He was an associate at the firm from 1998-2001, and after serving at Interior, he came back to Brownstein to lead the firm’s Natural Resources Department, where he lobbied for energy companies and Westlands Water District, among others. Westlands, the largest agricultural water district in the country, is made up of more than 1,000 square miles of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties.
Reaction to Bernhardt’s nomination was predictably mixed. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council praised Trump’s choice. Bernhardt "understands the concerns of cattle producers, and we look forward to continuing our work with him,” NCBA President Jennifer Houston said.
Public Lands Council President Bob Skinner added, "PLC has enjoyed a fantastic working relationship with Deputy Secretary Bernhardt. His knowledge of rural western communities and their relationship to large federal land holdings will be critical to this administration's ability to continue advancing policies that protect ranchers."
Ana Unruh Cohen, however, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s managing director for government affairs, said “Bernhardt might as well be an ideological clone of Ryan Zinke. The American public deserves a true steward who will protect our lands, our wildlife and our waters — not another industry shill who will continue to sell our precious natural resources to the highest bidders for exploitation.”
Bernhardt can be expected to put a priority on the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service has announced efforts to change the way certain aspects of the 36-year-old wildlife law are implemented.
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