My friend Garett Repenhagen, a U.S. army sniper who returned to civilian life from a tour in Afghanistan, threw his gear in his car and took two weeks hiking and camping alone in the wilderness. He told me he it was incredibly therapeutic and that he felt like he had healed in important ways. He said it made him feel good to be an American, in fact he said there is little more “quintessentially American than our right to access our nation’s public lands.”
Garett and I are among many military veterans who feel that our right to access public land is essential and needs to be protected. This is why the confirmation of David Bernhardt as secretary of the Interior should alarm every Montanan. Bernhardt has shown more interest in selling these lands off to the highest bidder than protecting them.
That Bernhardt’s career to date did not seem to concern Sen. Steve Daines is troubling. Montanans know how valuable public lands are and how important access to those lands is for our communities and our economies. It seems unbelievable that one of our own senators would vote to install someone with Bernhardt’s track record to oversee and manage those lands.
Put simply, the United States Senate’s confirmation of David Bernhardt is a disaster. The Senate’s recent vote should be a grave disappointment to all Montanans who use and appreciate the public lands in our state. He is not fit to hold this position, given its importance to our nation’s veterans.
Bernhardt has priorities that are out of line with those of us who use these lands — choosing instead to pursue an agenda in line with his former lobbying clients. He used to work for the oil, gas, and mining industries as a lobbyist — and they will all have business before the Interior Department. There is no reason to believe that Bernhardt will side with the American people when these conflicts were not properly addressed by the U.S. Senate during his confirmation process.
We already know a lot about what kind of Interior Secretary Bernhardt will be from his time as acting secretary. Reporting about Bernhardt’s former clients has revealed that since taking over as secretary, Bernhardt has taken action to directly benefit one of his former clients on more than a dozen occasions. And his old lobbying firm has seen their contracts for issues related to the Interior Department balloon by an additional $5 million since Bernhardt was nominated for this post.
In addition, before being confirmed by the Senate, Bernhardt took actions that increased access to public lands for oil and gas companies, making more than 17 million acres of public lands available for lease.
Bernhardt was also part of the Trump administration’s roll out of the Interior Department budget. Government budgets are as much about values as they are numbers — and Bernhardt showed Americans very clearly what he values. He proposed massive cuts to the department as a whole, as well as critical program like the Land and Water Conservation Fund that helps ensure access to outdoor spaces across the nation.
Access to public lands and our nation’s vast open spaces should be a critical issue for all Americans, but particularly so for those who have served our nation in the armed forces. The ability to explore, adventure, and find comfort in vast open spaces can be incredibly therapeutic as our veterans return home.
Americans should expect a leader of the Interior Department who understands this importance and fights to protect our public spaces. Bernhardt fails to meet that standard. It is unfortunate that Daines felt compelled to vote for his confirmation; the people of Montana must expect more from our elected officials.