Inside Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Wildly Destructive Track Record

The former oil lobbyist has built a shameful legacy for our parks, public lands, and wildlife

Jesse Prentice-Dunn
Published in
6 min readDec 3, 2020


Interior Secretary David Bernhardt joined the Trump administration after a lucrative career as a lawyer and lobbyist for drilling and mining companies. In office, he has raced to enact the policy priorities of the oil, gas, and mining industries at the expense of vulnerable communities across the country. Such blatant favoritism has required bending laws and ethics rules, all of which has led to Bernhardt’s dismal record in the courts.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Institute for Policy Integrity found that more than 80% of Interior Department actions challenged in court have not been upheld by federal judges. For example, a federal judge recently invalidated an Interior Department legal opinion that would allow oil companies to inadvertently kill migratory birds without penalties. In another case, a judge ruled Secretary Bernhardt had illegally kept acting Bureau of Land Management director William Perry Pendley in office, thereby invalidating new policies he had a role in crafting.

As Bernhardt takes years of anti-conservation baggage and blatant contempt for Indigenous communities back to the private sector, the next administration will face the tall task of undoing the damage. Here’s a brief look inside Bernhardt’s destructive track record:

Border Wall construction through the Tinajas Atlas Mountains in Arizona | Laiken Jordahl

Dismissing Native American tribes to promote President Trump’s vanity projects

As Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt is responsible for upholding the United States’ trust and treaty obligations to sovereign tribal nations. Instead of upholding those obligations, Bernhardt prioritized the political wishes of President Trump by:

  • Facilitating the blasting of ancient burial sites and land sacred to the Tohono O’odham Nation to build the border wall, including lands in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
  • Helping draft the proclamation to dramatically shrink Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, over the staunch opposition of numerous Native American tribes who consider the area sacred and led the historic effort to create the monument
  • Conducting a massive and potentially dangerous July 4 fireworks display over Mount Rushmore, despite a request from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and several other tribes to cancel the celebration taking place on their traditional territory and lands they consider sacred
  • Failing to provide adequate assistance to tribal nations that are being severely and disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. In South Dakota, one tribe is suing after the Interior Department threatened to withhold funding for their police force after the tribe instituted checkpoints to evaluate visitors for coronavirus
  • Moving forward with plans to open lands surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico to drilling, despite strong opposition from nearby Native American tribes facing the surging coronavirus pandemic
During the Trump administration, the Interior Department left national parks open, but understaffed, during multiple government shutdowns | National Parks Conservation Association

Using parks and public lands as political tools

Throughout his time in office, Secretary Bernhardt has used our parks and public lands to grant President Trump’s political whims, rather than for all Americans.

The Interior Department has proposed allowing oil companies to inadvertently kill migratory birds without penalties under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was used to prosecute BP after the Deepwater Horizon explosion | Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

Eviscerating critical protections for wildlife and public health

Secretary Bernhardt has led a rollback of wildlife and public health protections that is unprecedented and breathtaking in scope, all to benefit extractive industries and his former clients, including:

New York Times

Repeatedly bending ethics rules and delivering favors to his former clients

Assuming office shortly after advising and lobbying for dozens of clients with business before the department, David Bernhardt has been the most ethically conflicted Interior Secretary in recent history. In office, Bernhardt has consistently delivered policy favors for his former clients and skirted ethics rules, including:

Under Secretary Bernhardt, moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to rural Colorado prompted massive resignations | Boise State Public Radio

Managing our public lands for drilling and mining while sidelining key agencies

Entrusted with managing our parks and public lands for the benefit of all Americans, Secretary Bernhardt instead focused exclusively on expanding drilling and mining, while dismantling and sidelining key agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Some of his actions include:

In sum, David Bernhardt’s track record is the most destructive of any Interior Secretary in recent memory. He has bent the rules in a race to benefit drilling and mining companies, all while sidelining the public and vulnerable communities across the West. Many of these actions are already facing defeat in the court system, and others will lead to devastating consequences for public health, public lands, and wildlife in the years to come. Secretary Bernhardt will soon walk through the revolving door and look for employment in the private sector. While Bernhardt looks to profit off his destructive legacy, the next administration will have to pick up the pieces.



Jesse Prentice-Dunn

Policy Director | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO