Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who hails from Rifle, returned home to Colorado to give the keynote address and answer question Monday at the Western Governors' Association Annual meeting in Vail.
Twelve Western governors attended the three-day meeting, including Gov. Jared Polis. The annual gathering is a chance for state leaders to discuss a range of issues relevant to the whole region, such as water resources or broadband connectivity.
The meeting has long been a display of bipartisanship in an otherwise polarized country. It’s also a hot ticket for corporate executives and lobbyists, who munched popcorn and sipped soda inside the slope-side Hotel Talisa, where the event took place.
In questioning Bernhardt, even Democratic governors kept to that tradition of congeniality. None grilled the secretary about more controversial topics, like climate change or oil and gas development.
For example, Polis asked Bernhardt how states could help reduce the backlog of maintenance national parks need. Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada, another Democrat, asked Bernhardt how state and federal governments could better collaborate on wildfire mitigation.
Afterward, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon said she appreciates that the Western Governors' Association encourages bipartisan collaboration between states. That’s why she said it wasn’t the right setting to tussle with Bernhardt.
“We have the opportunity in public settings and frankly in less public ones, to push him, to question him and to make sure we are getting what we need from the department,” she said.
The congeniality didn’t extend outside the event, though. A small group of protestors wearing swamp monster masks — a reference to Bernhardt’s past as an oil and gas lobbyist — met the Interior Secretary.
In a statement, Emily Gedeon, conservation program director with the Colorado Sierra Club, said the protest was meant to send a message to Bernhart: Prioritize conservation over oil and gas extraction on public lands.
"It's so important that public lands aren't completely leased out and forever changed or damaged by coal, oil and gas companies,” Gedeon said. “Public lands belong to the people who live in this country, not the polluting companies that are trying to make money off of them."
Aaron Johnson, Vice President of Public Affairs with the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas advocacy group, countered that development and preservation aren’t necessarily in competition.
“Oil and gas production, as well as other energy production on public lands, actually funds quite a bit of conservation,” he said.
The full list of governors in attendance included Brad Little of Idaho, Laura Kell of Kansas, Kate Brown of Oregon, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Gary Herbert of Utah, Mark Gordon of Wyoming, Lou Leon Guerrero of Guam, David Ige of Hawaii, Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Jared Polis of Colorado.
Bernhardt isn’t the only notable speaker scheduled for the meeting. Vail Resort CEO Rob Katz addressed the governors Monday, reviewing how his company plans to manage the impacts of climate change. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, gives the keynote address on Wednesday