Lobbyists get bang for the bucks at Interior

Clients have paid Secretary Bernhardt’s former firm $12 million to lobby the agency he now controls — and they’re getting results

Jesse Prentice-Dunn
Published in
9 min readDec 17, 2019


Several clients have hired Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm to advance pipeline projects | Bureau of Land Management Alaska

Before joining Trump’s Interior Department, David Bernhardt was a high-priced lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS), a major law firm. Since his nomination, BHFS’ revenues from lobbying the Interior Department have increased 310%, as dozens of companies in the drilling, mining, gaming, and water industries have sought to gain access and influence key decisions. Nearly three years into Bernhardt’s tenure at Interior, many of these clients are seeing their projects and policies advanced, from new mines and natural gas pipelines to weakened oil and gas regulations.

An analysis of lobbying disclosure forms finds that, since David Bernhardt’s nomination to become Deputy Interior Secretary on April 28, 2017, 36 clients have paid Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck a total of $11.96 million to lobby the Interior Department, including 19 clients that hired the firm after Bernhardt’s nomination. Of those 36 clients, at least 24 have seen their projects or policies advanced in some way by the agency.

While Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has lobbied the Interior Department for many years, it has seen a sharp increase in business since David Bernhardt joined the agency. In the equivalent period of time prior to his nomination, 15 clients paid BHFS roughly $2.92 million to lobby the Interior Department.

Analysis of lobbying disclosure forms for clients of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck which indicate they are lobbying the Interior Department | Click here to view full analysis with links


The Center for Western Priorities compiled forms from the Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database in which Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck indicated they were lobbying the Interior Department on behalf of clients. These forms include the amount of money spent and the issue on which they were lobbying. Duplicate forms were removed and client spending was calculated for the period since David Bernhardt’s nomination to be Deputy Interior Secretary (April 28, 2017 to December 10, 2019) and the equivalent period before his nomination (September 14, 2014 to April 27, 2017). For lobbying disclosure forms filed since Bernhardt’s nomination, the analysis then used publicly-available documents, news articles, and calendars for senior Interior officials to match action on clients’ self-identified lobbying issues with actions taken by the Interior Department.

For nearly three years, dozens of industry clients have paid Secretary Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm millions to gain access to Interior Department officials and advance their projects. From permitting mines across the West to weakening oil and gas safeguards, those clients are seeing their projects approved while the general public is being sidelined and ignored. It is clear that under Secretary Bernhardt, corporations have a roadmap to getting their projects approved or policies advanced — just hire a high-powered lobbyist, preferably at his old firm.

Below are case studies of five companies that have hired Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to lobby the Interior Department and the results they have gotten.

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve | Sean Tevebaugh, National Park Service

Building a mining road through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve | Trilogy Metals, Inc.

Mining companies have long sought to develop the Ambler Mining District, a remote, mineral-rich area in northwest Alaska’s Brooks Range, sandwiched in between Kobuk Valley National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. One company in particular, Trilogy Metals, Inc., holds extensive mining claims in the area and is proposing to build a massive open pit copper mine. But to do that, Trilogy Metals needs a 211-mile access road connecting the proposed mine to the Dalton Highway, a road that would cut through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and disrupt one of the largest remaining Arctic caribou herds.

The state of Alaska’s development authority has pumped $26 million into plans for an Ambler Mining District access road, which would be closed to the public and only accessible to industrial traffic. Now, they need approval from the Bureau of Land Management to secure a right-of-way across public lands.

On July 10, 2019, Trilogy Metals hired BHFS to lobby the Interior Department on “Facilitating development in the Ambler mining region.” The following month, the Bureau of Land Management released its draft environmental analysis of the Ambler road. Though the BLM acknowledged the road could significantly impact local subsistence hunting and fishing, worsen air and water quality, and reduce wilderness values within the national park, the agency paved the way for its approval. Trilogy Metals applauded the report in a press release, calling it, “a critical step in the permitting of the [Ambler road] which is crucial to unlocking the incredible mineral wealth within the Ambler Mining District.” In a recent presentation, Trilogy told investors to expect final permits for the Ambler road from the BLM in the first quarter of 2020.

Hot springs in Glenwood Springs, Colorado | Jason Cipriani

Expanding a mine next to a thriving Colorado tourist town | Rocky Mountain Resources

For years, a small limestone mine has operated atop a mountain on the edge of Glenwood Springs, a thriving tourist town in western Colorado. Now, the mine’s new owner, Rocky Mountain Resources (RMR), is asking the Bureau of Land Management to approve a dramatic expansion, increasing the site from 15 acres to 447 acres. The expansion would be visible from downtown Glenwood Springs, result in hundreds of semi-truck trips each day, and could impact the geothermal water flows that feed the town’s famed hot springs.

The city and surrounding communities are staunchly opposed to the mine expansion. Glenwood Springs has set aside $1.25 million to fight its approval, and city councils for every municipality in the two surrounding counties have unanimously approved resolutions opposing the plan.

While Rocky Mountain Resources does not have any local support, they do have significant political connections. The company’s founder and CEO is Chad Brownstein, the son of Norm Brownstein — the founding partner of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and Secretary Bernhardt’s former boss. In its push to expand the mine, RMR hired BHFS to lobby the Interior Department in April 2019, paying them $100,000 over the following five months.

In August, the Bureau of Land Management accepted RMR’s application and announced it would begin a review of the project. At the same time, the company asked for approval to drill wells for a hydrology study, which owners of iconic local hot springs fear could “obliterate source waters” feeding their businesses. In November, the BLM announced it would conduct an environmental review of the proposed wells and expected a formal study of the mine expansion to begin in late spring or summer of 2020.

Cape Arago Lighthouse near Coos Bay, Oregon | Diana Robinson

Building a pipeline to ship natural gas from the Rocky Mountains to Asia | Jordan Cove Energy Project LP and Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline LP

With natural gas production booming in the Mountain West, oil and gas companies have long sought to find ways to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to overseas markets. In 2017, Jordan Cove Energy Project LP and Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline LP, both subsidiaries of Canadian-owned Pembina Pipeline, resubmitted an application to build a massive LNG export facility in Coos Bay, Oregon, along with a 235-mile pipeline to connect the facility with existing pipelines that stretch into Wyoming. Federal regulators had previously rejected the proposed project, which would be the first LNG facility on the U.S. west coast, citing a lack of demand for natural gas from Asian customers and impacts to U.S. landowners that would be impacted by pipeline construction.

To secure final approval, the project would require the Bureau of Land Management to amend its current land use plans and grant a right-of-way for the Pacific Connector Pipeline to cross public lands. In December 2018, both companies hired BHFS to lobby on the project, paying the firm a combined $100,000 each quarter. Over the next year, federal regulators released both draft and final environmental studies, paving the way for the BLM to grant a right-of-way. After consulting with the BLM and other federal agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to issue a final decision on the project on February 13, 2020.

Throughout, Secretary Bernhardt and his department have sought to push the project forward. According to emails obtained by The Guardian, Colorado county commissioners discussed the Jordan Cove project with Secretary Bernhardt in March 2019, then reported back to Jordan Cove lobbyists, saying, “He is totally behind the project and has people working on it towards completion. He recognizes that time is of the essence and that meaningful progress needs to be made this year.” Also during Bernhardt’s tenure, the BLM launched a web page touting the benefits of the Jordan Cove project, complete with a promotional video.

Canal supplying water within Westlands Water District | Westlands Water District

Securing coveted water deals and shredding protections for endangered species | Westlands Water District

During David Bernhardt’s time as a lawyer and lobbyist, Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the country and a political powerhouse in California, was arguably his largest client. In private practice, Bernhardt represented the group in lawsuits to increase water deliveries by weakening endangered species protections for fish. Bernhardt also lobbied for provisions in major water legislation that would benefit Westlands.

Westlands was thrilled with Bernhardt’s nomination to join the Interior Department. When Bernhardt forwarded the White House press release announcing his nomination to a Westlands official, the official replied, “Dream Team … with Bernhardt as the QB.” Since his nomination, Westlands has paid BHFS $790,000 to lobby the Interior Department, with astonishing results.

Just four months after joining the Interior Department, Bernhardt personally directed a Fish and Wildlife Service official to begin the process of weakening protections for two California fish species, exactly what he had sued over on behalf of Westlands. The department suddenly reversed course to support raising the height of a major California dam, ignoring its own scientific and legal analysis that showed the project would be environmentally harmful and cost-prohibitive. Raising the dam would disproportionately benefit Westlands, who would be in line to receive more water than anyone else. And in November of 2019, the Interior Department proposed awarding Westlands Water District the first permanent federal water contract in history, a move now allowed under major water legislation that Bernhardt lobbied for on behalf of Westlands.

Ahwahnee Hotel within Yosemite National Park | Scott Ableman

Billing taxpayers for national park trademarks and privatizing park services | Delaware North Companies, Inc.

From providing food service at professional sports stadiums to operating major casinos and hotels, Delaware North Companies, Inc. is one of the largest hospitality companies in the world. Delaware North also serves as a food, retail, and lodging concessionaire in national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

During two decades of providing services within Yosemite National Park, Delaware North trademarked the names of iconic facilities, such as the Ahwahnee Hotel and Curry Village, even “Yosemite National Park.” After losing a bid to continue operating hotels and restaurants within the park in 2015, Delaware North sued the National Park Service for $51 million, claiming it needed to be compensated for the trademarks and other intellectual property. As the lawsuit dragged on, the National Park Service spent $1.7 million to officially rename facilities within Yosemite and change the signs.

Four months after Bernhardt joined the Interior Department, Delaware North hired BHFS to lobby the agency on “issues related to concessions contracts.” Soon after, the company’s CEO was named to Interior’s Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, even though agency officials flagged him as having potential conflicts of interest. Stacked with industry representatives, the committee eventually issued a series of controversial recommendations to Interior leaders, including privatizing more national park services, allowing concessionaires to sidestep environmental reviews, and increasing park entrance and camping fees.

In July of 2019, Delaware North and the National Park Service settled the lawsuit over Yosemite trademarks, with the agency agreeing to pay the company $3.84 million in taxpayer dollars, far more than the $390,000 Delaware North has paid BHFS to lobby Interior officials.



Jesse Prentice-Dunn

Policy Director | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO