Growing up in Rifle on the Western Slope, David Bernhardt saw Colorado’s great outdoors from both sides of the economic equation. This upbringing would shape his way of thinking as the second-in-command for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Rifle of his boyhood in the early 1980s – from the rugged Flat Tops Wilderness Area, lush with wildflowers, alpine tundra and volcanic cliffs, to the rolling Colorado River Valley – was a picture of natural beauty marred by harsh economic realities.
He talks about “Black Sunday,” as the locals called it – May 2, 1982, when Exxon pulled the plug on the Colony Oil Shale Project, putting 2,000 locals out of work. Rifle, at the time, was about 3,200 people. The town’s two banks closed, people left to find work again, and windows were boarded up in entire neighborhoods, Bernhardt recalled.
“The economy, the world, was just depressing,” Bernhardt said at a table outside 2914 Coffee, a shop in Denver’s Jefferson Park neighborhood.
His father was a county extension agent and his mother was in the real estate business. At 16 years old in 1985, Bernhardt had had enough of hard times; he took the GED and shoved off for the University of Northern Colorado.
From small-town boy to high-powered Washington politico, Bernhardt has traveled a long distance. The boom-and-bust struggles of rural communities that produce the nation’s fossil fuels have not.
As the deputy to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, he is the logistical brain who gets things done for the take-no-prisoners persona of his boss, a former Navy SEAL.
Bernhardt is Robin to the secretary’s Batman, if you will. He met Zinke when he volunteered to help with the Trump transition team, then helped prepare Zinke for the confirmation hearings.
“I’m his understudy,” Bernhardt said. “I do whatever he doesn’t want to do. Every secretary wants one of those, the guy who does the other stuff.”
On his latest return to Colorado, Bernhardt visited with federal workers and volunteers. Then he went to the Western Slope to present an oversized check for $40.1 million for payments in lieu of taxes, the annual allocation that offsets what the local property tax base loses for carrying federal property on its books. Garfield County received $3.2 million.
After college, Bernhardt worked for Russell George, a Western Colorado lawyer, before George was elected to the state Legislature in 1993. He called George his mentor, a man who would go on be the speaker of Colorado’s House, then lead the state’s Division of Wildlife, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Transportation.
In the Legislature, Russell’s aide was Cory Gardner, now one of Colorado’s U.S. senators. After working for George, Bernhardt landed a job with U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican from Grand Junction.
In 1998, Bernhardt joined the Denver-based political powerhouse law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and worked on environmental policy. He then landed at the Department of the Interior, when former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton was named the department’s secretary under President George W. Bush. Bernhardt described his role there as a “utility infielder,” doing whatever was asked of him. He rose to be the agency’s solicitor, its top lawyer.
After the Bush administration ended, he approached Norm Brownstein, his old boss, about starting an environmental law practice. He remained in Washington because his wife loved her job there.
“I planned to come back in ’09,” Bernhardt said of Colorado. “But she said no.”
BLM HQ to Grand JunctionBernhardt takes his unique Colorado perspective to Washington, but he could play a pivotal role in bringing parts of the federal government to the West.
He’s a key figure in President Trump’s proposed reorganization of federal agencies. One of the Department of the Interior moves most heavily discussed – with the great benefit of bipartisan support from Colorado’s Gardner, a Republican, and Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat – is the potential of relocating the Bureau of Land Management federal headquarters outside Washington, and specifically to Grand Junction.
“I think if they move the headquarters to Junction, I’ll have to say, ‘Honey, I’m in Junction,’” he joked.
The first thing the department has to do is align the regions of its various agencies so they can better coordinate and augment their often parallel missions while reducing costly duplication and delays, Bernhardt said.
“Where things are overloaded is really in the field,” he said. “Our management has gotten a little heavier and our field organizations have gotten a little smaller, and we need to put that energy and capabilities out on the front lines.”
After that, the administration will work on a short list of cities for headquarters for its agencies outside of Washington.
“Here’s the thing,” Bernhardt said. “We need to put the processes in place to get things going, to get them successful and have buy-in, right, buy-in by our own people, buy-in by the public and buy-in by our political leaders – somewhere where we have, hypothetically speaking, a Democratic senator and a Republican senator.”
He acknowledged that if Democrats win the House or Senate in November, the Trump administration proposal might be harder to achieve, but it’s not a dead issue, as much of Trump’s remaining agenda might be.
“It’s very hard for anybody who knows anything to look at our organization and say it’s firing on all cylinders,” Bernhardt said. “Even the Democrats who spend a lot of time with our department, I think at the end of the day, they know that we have room for significant improvement, and why would they not want to be part of that?”
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Politics of the outdoorsBut Bernhardt is no babe in the woods on the rough ways of Washington politics.
Zinke is the subject of more than a dozen investigations, and Bernhardt’s Senate confirmation included harsh criticism of his perceived conflicts of interests with former clients and his cozy relationships as an industry attorney.
Trump’s executive orders and Zinke’s secretarial orders have pushed the pace of overhauling the agency with brute force – not in ways appreciated by department veterans, environmentalists or others on the political left.
“I know the rules,” Bernhardt said, leaning forward over his coffee cup when asked about ethics and investigations. “I’m going to play by the rules. I’m not going to go outside the rules. And you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to rigorously adhere to those rules.
“And those rules don’t say I can’t have opinions on certain things.”
He continued, “Everybody in the administration is for clean air, clean water, a wonderful outdoor experience. At the same time, we also believe you can develop energy responsibly. We don’t think it’s an either-or choice.”
He thinks Trump’s economic policies are gaining traction and fueling economic growth that will buoy the administration’s broader domestic agenda. Bernhardt said he’s pleased to be part of that administration.
“As someone who gets to work in this administration, I’ll tell ya, it’s unbelievable to have a boss who basically says, ‘Look, I expect you to do the work to keep my promises,’” he said. “That’s pretty clear direction, right?”