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Zinke's Out, Bernhardt's In: Changes Move Forward In Interior Department Despite Shutdown

U.S. Department of the Interior via Twitter

Despite the government shutdown, there's been a handover at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Former Secretary Ryan Zinke is out, deputy secretary David Bernhardt is in, with a continuance of the Trump Administration policy of energy dominance.

KUER's Diane Maggipinto spoke with Nate Hegyi of KUER's Mountain West News Bureau to sort it out, starting with Zinke's wins and losses.

Nate Hegyi:His most high profile accomplishment was shrinking two national monuments here in Utah. Grand [Staircase]-Escalante and Bears Ears. That was cheered by local county commissioners and industry but derided by everyone from tribes to environmentalists to outdoor retail giants like Patagonia and REI.

Diane Maggipinto: But he didn't actually go out there with that piece of chalk and say, 'OK these are the new boundaries. It's not a done deal.'

NH:Exactly. It's not a done deal. As soon as that happened a whole bunch of groups sued against it, so that story is definitely not over. We're going to continue to follow it and see what happens next.

DM: When these boundaries were shrunk, a lot of people were pretty heartbroken other people were cheering, right? But we know as journalists that this can be a long, drawn-out process, right? So where does that leave Zinke? He's on the outside now.

NH:He's kind of in a little bit of hot water regarding ethics investigations. I believe he had more than a dozen into him. In a lot of those investigations he was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he's definitely not out of it. In terms of the monuments themselves, I don't think he needs to worry about them anymore now that he's once again a former congressman from Montana and former Interior Secretary.

DM: So he took this position of 'U.S. energy dominance' probably from prompts from the president and other sort of experts, as it were — lobbyists and such. What does that mean?

NH:It was this idea of 'America First,' right? And this country depending on its own energy resources to power itself essentially and to power the world. So I think he's opened up millions of acres of public lands across the Mountain West to potential energy development and new oil and gas leases. Feds just held one of the biggest oil and gas auction in years here in Utah last month. They've eased protections for the iconic sage grouse which also lives in prime oil and gas country. So they've done a lot in that sense.

DM: That's a good point. They've done a lot, but where does it all stand now? How much is actually going to happen?

NH: Right. And again, for this Interior Department they've been met with lawsuits. And then you also have the market, which is a whole different thing. Zinke made it easier to expand coal mines on public lands. Coal production was up in 2017 but demand for coal here in the U.S. is decreasing. So, we've seen coal companies declare bankruptcies, mines and power plants shutter. The truth is other energies, like natural gas and renewables, are a lot cheaper and more abundant here in the U.S. right now. So that shifting market is also just a really big factor. It's going to take a while to see how this all shakes out.

DM: Let's move away from the land issues and to Zinke himself and these allegations and accusations swirling around him. He kind of left maybe with his head hanging.

NH: I don't think he ever left with his head hanging. I mean, his head was always held quite high. That said, there were a lot of questions regarding how he conducted himself in office. There were little issues like the time he wore socks with 'Making America Great Again' on them, which would be a violation of the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act is one of these obscure rules that says most people who work for the executive branch can't engage in political activity.

But the socks were just a little thing, because there were also bigger issues like a Montana real estate deal between Zinke's family foundation and a group whose investors included the then-chair of oil giant Halliburton. This raised hackles for critics who say an energy company executive making a business deal with the man in charge of managing oil and gas resources on public lands was kind of bad news bears. And, he says he's not guilty. That investigation is still ongoing.

We also know that one investigation was referred to the Justice Department for potential criminal violation. That said, we don't know exactly which investigation that was, but suffice to say, he may have resigned but he's not out of the water yet.

DM: Now there is an interim federal Interior Secretary in place. What I found kind of striking is this: David Bernhardt, he's worked for the Interior off and on for years and years where Zinke had just come in being tapped after, as I said, one term in Congress. Tell us about David Bernhardt.

NH:Bernhardt's the total opposite of Zinke in many ways. He's said to be this uncharismatic lawyer, a bureaucrat, but he's said to have a surgical legal mind. As you said he's worked for Interior before — he was a top lawyer under the Bush administration. But he's also an ex-oil lobbyist whose clients included top energy firms. And so critics say Bernhardt was kind of the architect, the power behind the throne, if you will, behind a lot of Interior's biggest moves like relaxing methane rules and removing Obama friendly senior officials within the Park Service.

Just like Zinke, Bernhardt's loved by industry and assailed by environmental protection groups. That said, we have no idea how long he'll be in charge. President Trump said he would announce a new Interior Secretary a few weeks ago. That hasn't happened. I'm sure the shutdown has played into it, but we just don't know.

Copyright 2020 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio.
Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
Diane Maggipinto is a longtime radio pro. She's worked in various states, of sleep deprivation and around the country, in commercial and public radio newsrooms, and was a fill-in at KUER before stepping into the permanent Morning Edition host position in January 2015. Early into her new gig, she was nominated for an award for sports reporting and, when not at work, enjoys participating, not spectating. Skiing, mountain biking, hiking, trail running and wrangling her two children and pair of black and white pets are activities she squeezes in when not on the air or recording voiceovers as a freelance voice actor. She is also an emcee for non-profit organizations around the valley.