March 26, 2019
I am writing on behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). With more than 1,600 members, the Coalition consists mainly of retired National Park Service (NPS) employees, including: Former NPS directors; associate and regional directors; superintendents; rangers, and a wide variety of specialists. The Coalition was founded in 2003 for the purpose of education and advocating for the preservation and protection of America’s national parks. Collectively, our members represent nearly 40,000 years of experience in protecting and managing America’s most precious and important natural and historic places.
Today we are reaching out to you regarding the upcoming nomination hearing for David Bernhardt as the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI). Many of our members have worked with Mr. Bernhardt in his various roles at DOI over the years, and have become familiar with his policy focus, management priorities and relationships beyond the Department. Unfortunately, the overwhelming consensus among park professionals is that Mr. Bernhardt poses a serious threat to the good stewardship of parks and, indeed, our natural heritage. Especially over the past two years under the Trump administration, we have been dismayed by Mr. Bernhardt’s conspicuous record of anti-conservation and anti-park decisions. He is a barrier to actions, in parks and beyond, that would reduce and accommodate the impacts of climate change. His decision to use fee collection money to open parks during the shutdown has done long-lasting harm to efforts to reduce the ever-growing maintenance backlog. And his obvious devotion to the energy industry is resulting in massive expansion of oil and gas development throughout the west, including parcels adjacent to parks. Clearly, if confirmed as Secretary, his priorities will result in long-term and possibly irreversible damage to our national parks.
We are also greatly disturbed by Mr. Bernhardt’s ongoing and widely-known conflicts of interests and have taken note that he was recently named by the Center for American Progress as the “most conflicted” member of the president’s cabinet in his role as acting Secretary of the Interior.
Members of our Coalition also remember actions taken by Mr. Bernhardt prior to his current service in the Trump Administration. For example, while working at DOI under the most recent Bush administration, Mr. Bernhardt worked to reduce protections for endangered species. In fact, from 2007 to today, Mr. Bernhardt has gone to great lengths to severely limit effective implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). At present, he is championing a drastic rewrite of the ESA that would result in new regulations that would threaten the long-term protection of listed species. In order for the ESA to remain the strong and successful law that has protected endangered species for decades, Mr. Bernhardt cannot be put in charge of its enforcement.
The Coalition has actively opposed comprehensive efforts by DOI and Mr. Bernhardt to auction an unprecedented number of acres for oil and gas development on federal lands, some very near our national parks. Despite judicial direction to the contrary, Mr. Bernhardt, continues to lead a process of decision-making regarding approval of energy development on public lands that excludes public input. We know that national parks cannot be successful if managed as “islands.” Their preservation depends on good stewardship of adjacent landscapes, including prevention of inappropriate development that inevitably will harm park resources. The opposite is happening under Mr. Bernhardt’s leadership.
Our members were involved in one especially egregious example of Mr. Bernhardt’s priorities and conflicts of interest. In October 2017, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) removed a significant hurdle that California water giant, Cadiz, had faced in a controversial groundwater pumping project in California’s Mojave Desert near the NPS-managed Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. Under Mr. Bernhardt’s influence, the BLM allowed a major water mining project to move forward without undergoing federal environmental reviews or public engagement despite obvious and significant threats to desert resources. We learned that Cadiz was among the companies that Mr. Bernhardt pledged to recuse himself from until August 2019 because a former coworker is the President and CEO of the company.
We know that Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination as Secretary of the Interior will be considered during a period of a significant decline in employee morale. Throughout this Administration, NPS employees and the work they do have not been valued, and employees are too often treated as pawns in a larger political arena. This has been obvious in the number of veteran managers in the Senior Executive Service who decided to retire rather than accept assignments that appeared punitive and certainly did not increase the efficiency of the Park Service. Further, many positions in the Park Service remain unfilled, especially the key lead role of National Park Service Director, for over half the first term of this administration. This is unprecedented and demonstrates the contempt with which the Park Service is held within the Department of the Interior under Mr. Bernhardt’s leadership. Our former colleagues and co-workers need a leader who will support the mission of the National Park Service, and who will stand up for their values and passion for protecting parks.
We need a Secretary of the Interior who is dedicated to protecting our parks and fulfilling the mission of the NPS as described in the National Park Service Organic Act. We need an advocate for our national parks, someone who will work tirelessly to ensure that the parks are left ‘unimpaired for future generations.’
Thank you for considering our views.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks