Trump Nominates Powerful Westlands' Lobbyist for Deputy Interior Secretary

By Dan Bacher | May 9, 2017 |

On April 28, President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate David Bernhardt of Virginia, who has served as a lobbyist for the politically powerful Westlands Water District, for Deputy Secretary of the Interior.
Interior is the agency in charge of managing and conserving public land and natural resources, including rivers and lakes, in the U.S. Bernhardt will serve under Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who recently came to Sacramento to meet with California Governor Jerry Brown to discuss water infrastructure, the Delta Tunnels, public lands and other issues.

The appointment drew condemnation from fishing and environmental groups, but praise from Ducks Unlimited.  

Bernhardt, born in Rifle, Colorado, is “an avid hunter and fisherman," according to an announcement from the White House.

"I am excited to announce the President and I have selected Dave Bernhardt to help me lead the Interior Department," said Secretary Zinke. "Bernhardt's extensive experience serving under former Interior Secretaries Norton and Kempthorne and his esteemed legal career is exactly what is needed to help streamline government and make the Interior and our public lands work for the American economy."

Bernhardt recently served on the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries for the Commonwealth of Virginia. He has previously served as the United States Commissioner to the International Boundary Commission, U.S. and Canada, according to the White house.

“From 2001 and 2009, he held several positions within the Department of the Interior, including, after unanimous confirmation, serving as Solicitor, which is the Interior’s third ranking official and chief legal officer,” the White House said.

Bernhardt currently chairs the natural resource law practice at Brownstein, Hyatt Farber and Schreck, LLP.

John McManus, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), an organization representing sport and commercial salmon fishermen and women and related businesses along California’s coast and rivers, issued a statement strongly opposing Bernhardt’s nomination.

Bernhardt has for many years served as a lobbyist and litigator for the Westlands Water District, the largest federal water contractor in the nation and a strong advocate of the construction of the Delta Tunnels and the weakening of environmental laws protecting Sacramento River salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Trinity and Klamath River salmon and other imperiled fish populations.

 “Mr. Bernhardt and Westlands have spent the past decade attacking salmon protections and, by extension, the tens of thousands of California fishing jobs tied to salmon,” said McManus.  “It strains credibility to suggest that Mr. Bernhardt, were he to be appointed, would refrain from occupying himself with key departmental decisions that he has spent the last decade working to influence.  In fact, those seeking his appointment are almost certainly counting on him to weigh in on their behalf.
McManus emphasized, “Fishermen saw a pattern during the George W. Bush Administration, including suppressing science and damaging salmon runs. We should learn from that history, not repeat it.”

On the other hand, Ducks Unlimited (DU), a wetlands and waterfowl conservation organization, said it “looks forward to working with” Bernhardt. 

"I have known and worked with David Bernhardt for more than 10 years and could not be more pleased with his nomination for Deputy Secretary of the Interior,” said Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall. “He is a man with personal and professional integrity that is beyond reproach and has always advocated for the proper implementation of the law. We urge the Senate to quickly confirm Mr. Bernhardt for this extremely important position to the Department's expansive conservation responsibilities."  

Prior to serving as solicitor, the controversial Bernhardt held several high-level positions with the DOI including Deputy Solicitor, Deputy Chief of Staff, Counselor to the Secretary of the Interior and Director of the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs.

In contrast with Hall’s claim that Bernhardt has “always advocated for the proper implementation of the law,” McManus pointed out, “The appointment of Mr. Bernhardt would raise multiple conflicts. On behalf of Westlands, Mr. Bernhardt was deeply involved in drafting legislation, which passed at the end of 2016, that weakened federal protections for salmon.”  

“In coming years, federal agencies, particularly the Department of the Interior where he wants to work, will make decisions regarding implementing that bill.  Westlands will, no doubt, lobby Interior to use that legislation to increase water diversions from the San Francisco Bay-Delta which will further weaken salmon protections.  An even more dramatic legislative assault on salmon (H.R. 23), which Bernhardt helped craft, was introduced by Congressman Valadao in January.  The Westlands Water District is pushing this bill and, if it moves forward, Interior will be asked to take a position,” said McManus.

Bernhardt also represented Westlands in courtroom attacks on federal Endangered Species Act protections for winter-run Chinook salmon and other imperiled native fish species. “Had he succeeded, some salmon runs might now be extinct,” said McManus.

Bernhardt briefly led Trump’s transition team after the November election until he was replaced by Doug Domenech, a Big Oil think tank director, on November 26, 2016. ( ) 

To read GGSA’s statement’s on Bernhart’s potential appointment to the DOI, go to:

For a report on Bernhardt’s many conflicts of interest, go to:

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