May 22, 2019

Udall Questions Interior Secretary Bernhardt on Climate Crisis, Protections for NM, US Public Lands and Environment

Following 5th Anniversary of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Udall asks Bernhardt if Trump admin. will shrink additional national monuments - Bernhardt says “I think the answer is no”


WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, questioned Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary David Bernhardt about the need for strong protections for public lands and the environment in New Mexico and across the country, and for strong action to fight climate change. 

Video of Udall’s opening statement is available HERE. 

“Although this is a budget hearing, I am not going to spend much time going over your budget proposal. We say this so often that it’s almost a mantra at this point: the administration’s proposal for the Interior Department is disastrous and it’s dead on arrival,” said Udall. “We simply are not going to defund the Land and Water Conservation Fund or reduce the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program or cut programs that fulfill trust and treaty obligations to Native Americans. Instead, we will get to work on a bipartisan budget agreement that will prevent sequestration and meet our needs as a nation.”

“So I will instead use my limited time talking about policy. Let me start with climate change. You said at a hearing last week you are ‘not losing sleep’ over scientific reports that carbon dioxide is at the highest levels ever recorded in human history. This is deeply troubling. Let me tell you: along with many Americans, I am losing sleep over climate change and over this administration’s stubborn refusal to address its threat,” said Udall. “What we see with our own eyes every day – extreme weather events, droughts, heat waves – is clear. We’re already seeing that our national parks and public lands are some of the most vulnerable.”

Read Udall’s full opening statement HERE.  

Highlights from Udall’s questioning of DOI Secretary Bernhardt include:

- Protections for National Monuments: In 2017, the Department of the Interior released a report recommending that the president shrink four national monuments and change the way six other sites are managed including Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico. In March, Udall led 16 Senate Democrats in calling on then acting Secretary Bernhardt to make a public commitment to leave existing national monument boundaries intact as originally intended before the Senate voted on his nomination for Secretary of the Interior. 

“The letter we sent you asked you to clarify that the department does not intend to take any additional actions to implement the recommendations in the report, including actions to revise the boundaries or make planning changes to the two monuments in New Mexico…Rio Grande del Norte, and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks,” said Udall.

“Yes, or no, Mr. Secretary, has the department taken any actions to date, or does the Department have any plans to take future actions, including making additional recommendations to the White House for presidential action, that implement changes to the eight other monuments called for by Secretary Zinke’s review?”

Bernhardt replied, “I think the answer is no,” and that he will “not take any action on any monuments,” unless directed by the president. 

In February, Senator Udall led more than 100 Democratic members of Congress in re-introducing the ANTIQUITIES Act that specifically protects existing national monuments and is the leader of a bicameral Congressional Amicus Brief in litigation challenging the Trump Administration’s decision to dramatically roll back two national monuments in Utah.

During the hearing, Udall also asked Bernhardt if he was aware of the department’s potential violations of appropriations law by conducting pre-leasing activities to identify areas for oil, gas, and coal development within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Udall and Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittees on the Interior, Environment, and RelatedAgencies, have requested the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigate the issue

- Chaco Canyon:  In April, Udall introduced The Chaco Cultural Heritage Protection Act of 2019, S. 1079, with the full New Mexico delegation, which would prevent any future leasing or development of minerals owned by the U.S. government on lands within an approximately 10-mile protected radius around Chaco.

“Chaco is known around the world as the heart of a culture that inhabited the Four Corners area for hundreds of years.  But the park covers only a fraction of the archeologically and culturally significant sites and artifacts,” said Udall. “This area is at real and continued risk.  Over the last three years, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed new oil and gas leasing in the Greater Chaco Canyon Landscape area.” 

“Last year’s FY19 appropriation act included report language that directed the BLM to ‘refrain from leasing within a 10-mile radius of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.’ Notwithstanding this prohibition, the BLM subsequently offered dozens of leases, including nine leases within the 10-mile “buffer” area that protects Chaco,” said Udall. “Does Interior’s decision to offer these nine leases within the 10-mile buffer violate the appropriations report language?” 

Bernhardt refused to commit to following the congressional direction in the appropriations report on Chaco leasing but committed to working with Udall and Senator Martin Heinrich on the issue.

- Climate Change: In recent appearances before Congress, Secretary Bernhardt dismissed the issue of climate change and said that it is Congress’s responsibility to provide the department with clearer direction to address climate change if the agency is expected to act.  During the hearing, Udall pointed out language in laws like the Endangered Species Act that have very specific language instructing the secretary to protect species from man-made threats. 

“I mentioned my concerns with your testimony before the House committees regarding your department’s obligations with respect to climate change.  You have testified previously that Congress hasn’t explicated required you to take specific actions to mitigate climate change. I would disagree with you there,” said Udall.

“Your administration has consistently taken actions that disregard the need to address climate change, like gutting the BLM methane waste rule, a rule which would have stopped nearly 2 million tons of methane from being released,” said Udall. “Would you support or oppose additional congressional guidance directing you to act more clearly to protect public lands in the context of climate change and manage our public lands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?”

Bernhardt said he would work with Congress “depending on what it wanted to do.”

- Wildlife Corridors:  This May, Udall and Representative Don Beyer (D-Va.) introduced the bipartisan Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019 to begin reversing the tide of habitat loss and fragmentation for America’s fish, wildlife, and plant species – a major factor in species decline and extinction. The legislation would give authority to key federal agencies, including the DOI, to designate National Wildlife Corridors on federal lands that would help safeguard America’s most iconic species from a mass extinction crisis.

“Since 2017, BLM has offered 450 percent more western acres to the oil and gas industry than offered in 2016. And nearly one-quarter of these leases were within a wildlife corridor or state wildlife priority area for big game. In my home state of New Mexico, more than 80 percent of BLM leases were on state wildlife priority areas,” said Udall. “Yet Interior has done little on the conservation side when it comes to corridors.”

“The administration once again proposed eliminating Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, a program that brings together the best and the brightest across the federal, state, tribal, local, and NGO communities to tackle thorny, landscape scale issues, like migration corridors,” said Udall. “For many years running, we’ve included report language directing the agency to continue the program.  But for the last two years, the department ignored our directives.  Most of the LCCs have shut down.  This is a step backward.” 

“In 2018, Interior issued a secretarial order to preserve big-game habitats and a couple of weeks ago Interior set aside $2.1 million in federal grants for state and local partner projects that would protect big-game migration corridors. So, in theory, Interior does at least support the concept of preserving wildlife corridors, correct?” asked Udall. 

Bernhardt responded that he has and wants to continue working with governors to protect wildlife corridors. 

Fourth of July Celebration Funding: According to reporting from the Washington Post, the president is attempting to use the annual Fourth of July Celebration on the National Mall to serve as a “Salute to America” that would include a marquee speaking role for him at the Lincoln Memorial and additional fireworks and other activities. No cost estimates or details have been given and there is a concern that this is an attempt to create a government-funded political rally for the President. 

“I’m deeply concerned that the President is planning to take a nonpartisan celebration and turn it into some kind of de-facto political rally…Spending taxpayer dollars on political activity violates apportions law,” said Udall. “Mr. Secretary, can you assure us that no funds appropriated by this subcommittee will be spent on activities that are partisan or that serve purely to aggrandize the president?”

Bernhardt committed to making sure that every dollar Interior spends on Fourth of July celebrations comply with the law. 

Video of Udall’s opening statement and questioning of Bernhardt is availablHERE.