In Vail, U.S. secretary of the interior talks to western governors about cooperation
Protestors against David Bernhardt's policies were nearby, but out of sight
- Of local interest, the agreement includes developing a road map for state, local and federal cooperation following wildfires and other disasters.
- The agreement will also work to improve vegetation management in and around power lines that cross land owned by different entities.
VAIL — While protesters nearby — but out of sight — voiced their displeasure, United States Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and a dozen western governors talked about how to cooperate.
Bernhardt was the first main speaker at this week’s meeting of the Western Governors Association, being held this year at Vail’s Hotel Talisa.
Bernhardt was slated to give a keynote address to the group — a full ballroom of sponsors, staff, security and media — but chose instead to hold a question and answer session with the governors.
Addressing deferred maintenance
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis led the questions, first with compliments on the feds’ involvement in the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.
Polis also asked about how the feds and states can work together to address a massive backlog in deferred maintenance at the nation’s national parks, most of which are in the West.
That backlog is “unsustainable,” Bernhardt said, adding that his department has proposed using revenue generated on public lands to fund $12.6 billion in deferred maintenance at the nation’s parks.
“We need to actually do it,” Bernhardt said. “We need the support of the American people.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert asked about the prospect of moving some Department of the Interior functions — particularly the Bureau of Land Management — out West.
Bernhardt said the department is examining the possibility of moving some staff from Washington, D.C., to a spot closer to where most of the nation’s federal lands are located.
Bernhardt said that could create “greater accountability” between the agency and its constituents.
After that evaluation, Bernhardt said Congress will be informed. Legislators would have to approve and fund any potential move.
While most of the session was a relatively pleasant back-and-forth, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown asked about the status of protecting the Bureau of Land Management property in that state that has been classified as having “wilderness characteristics.”
Bernhardt said he isn’t familiar with the case and promised to get back to Brown with an update.
The U.S. Territory of Guam is federally administered by the Department of the Interior. Gov. Lourdes Leon Guerrero asked Bernhardt about restoring federal funding to the territory’s Medicaid program. Bernhardt promised to update that governor, as well.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem told the audience that Bernhardt has been responsive in his short time in office, noting that he has given governors his personal cell phone number.
She also asked Bernhardt what the governors — most of whom have been recently elected — should know about dealing with the federal government.
Bernhardt said there’s a lot of opportunity to collaborate with states, and that the federal agency has some flexibility in rules and regulations, if states want it.
“We’re open to doing things differently,” Bernhardt said. “If you have an idea, we’re open (to hearing it).”
On the other hand, Bernhardt said just about any federal action is open to litigation, so agencies have to explain in detail why they acted as they did.
While there are limitations, “there are a lot of things we can accomplish,” Bernhardt said.