A Message from Secretary Bernhardt

Last edited 07/24/2019


It is a privilege to write to you in a new capacity. I was appointed by the President as the Secretary of the Interior, effective last Thursday night. For me, there are few duties within the Federal Government as important to the American people as executing the varied missions of the Department of the Interior.

Over the course of my career, I have had the chance to serve three different Secretaries of the Interior during nearly a decade of service. I learned a great deal from each of them.

My appreciation and affection for the Department’s overarching mission and for all of you who are dedicated to fulfilling that mission is real and deeply felt. To say it was humbling to meet with the President to discuss the Department’s mission, and to then be entrusted with leading it, is a significant understatement. Being confirmed by the Senate with bipartisan support is a vote of confidence and trust that carries with it a tremendous obligation to ensure that each decision is well grounded in the law and the facts. 

Like many of you, I have an authentic attachment to the many special places managed by the Department for the benefit of our own and future generations. I know and love the rich histories and varied cultures of the Department’s Bureaus. I am passionate about the work we do together. I will strive to make our work environment better by listening to and acting upon your suggestions for improvement.

I believe that each person who chooses to work at the Department finds fulfillment in serving the American people. We must also share a common commitment to making the Department not only better, but more effective. We can maintain those values even at those times when we might find our opinions differ—because we are bound together by a common purpose. 

Each of the three Secretaries I served brought a unique perspective and approach to their job. I thought it would be helpful to share a few personal perspectives with you as I begin to serve in this new capacity. It is my hope that doing so will give you a better sense of both my perspective and my priorities. I also hope it will help place my future actions in context as I begin to move the Department forward. 


I grew up in rural western Colorado and spent my summers on my grandparents’ ranch in windswept southeastern Wyoming, which fostered my passion for hunting and fishing.

I was raised in an area just east of the small town of Rifle. In that part of Garfield County, the four small communities of Rifle, Silt, New Castle, and Glenwood Springs are located west to east along a valley through which the Colorado River, the railroad, and now Interstate I-70 run. I spent part of my youth in schools in each of these communities. Each are rural towns, essentially surrounded by a significant presence of lands managed by the Forest Service in the White River National Forest and by the Bureau of Land Management. The culture, history, and economy of each these communities depended on, and still depend on, both the development and the utilization of natural resources, as well as the conservation and recreation associated with those same natural resources.

This area features world-class hunting, gold-medal trout fishing, robust energy development, incredible wilderness areas, great skiing, off-highway vehicle trails, and mountain biking, all within a few miles of each other. Growing up in this environment instilled in me a love and appreciation for the splendor of the outdoors and the magnificence of the natural environment.

In many ways, the history of these communities epitomizes the changes that have occurred in many of the communities that are surrounded by public lands across our country. For example, Glenwood Springs was one of the first communities in the western United States to become a resort town at the dawn of the 20th century. It remains a popular tourist area today, where skiing, rafting, hiking, kayaking, hunting, mountain biking, and every other form of outdoor recreation you can think of are important to the local economy.

The town of New Castle was originally a coal town until 86 miners lost their lives in two explosions caused by methane gas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Those tragedies ended coal mining in New Castle, but the resulting coal fire has continued to smolder more than 100 years later. It was, and is, a poignant reminder of what a world without common sense environmental or safety regulation would look like. 

During my youth, many New Castle residents worked “up-valley” in Glenwood Springs or Aspen. One of my most salient and enduring memories occurred on April 15, 1981, when a close friend’s father perished in a mine explosion up-valley that killed 15 miners at the Dutch Creek Mine No. 1. As a result of that tragedy, I witnessed firsthand how much my friend and his brothers missed not having a father, and I think of him every time I evaluate a matter related to worker safety at the Department.

The town of Silt was known for its agriculture production. Rifle was known for its ranching, energy booms and busts, and hunting. Energy tax revenues have been important to Rifle, making vital public services available to the community, including an exceptional hospital facility.

Not every day was grand growing up in western Colorado. A large energy company decided to leave the Western Slope after determining that it did not want to proceed forward with a development project. That decision dramatically impacted my community. I recall that about 2,300 people lost their jobs. The day the layoffs were announced became known as Black Sunday. 

Watching people struggle—seeing their hopes and dreams falter—crystallized an empathy in me for similarly vulnerable communities. Ultimately, the economic environment was so bad in my community that I decided to get a GED and go to college early so I could strive for a better future. This experience also fostered in me an appreciation of the need for a balanced approach to complex issues involving natural resources. Pursuit of that balance drew me to a career as a natural resource lawyer. It also instilled an understanding that those of us who are entrusted to make decisions on behalf of the public interest must appreciate the actual consequences of our actions before proceeding.

I share these thoughts and experiences with you to highlight my view that our missions are varied for important reasons. Experience has shown me that our decisions have real consequences at both the large-scale and the individual levels.

In most instances, I believe that finding the right balance for these varied missions is best done with significant engagement between our field offices and State and local elected representatives, and with input from local communities. Those of you who work in the field are often the most attuned to local views and have a keen understanding of the consequences actions will have on your neighbors.

This is one reason why I believe we must place more resources, decision-making authority, and accountability closer to the “front lines” of the organization. In taking this approach, we are more likely to arrive at durable, lasting solutions and outcomes that are balanced and minimize the potential for future conflict. 


For decision makers within the Department, please understand that I expect you to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the factual and legal setting, as well as our actual decision space when making a decision. Our conclusions must be grounded in the facts and the laws as they exist, rather than the facts or laws we might wish to exist to fit a desired policy option. 

We can and should expect to have healthy disagreement internally at times. I have always believed that reaching a sound decision on a complex issue often includes listening to and understanding contrary views. I have never been troubled by changing my mind after listening to a new argument that better informed my view. However, it is ultimately the policy maker’s job, to the extent he or she has discretion, to exercise that discretion to achieve the Administration’s goals, consistent with the facts and the law. 

Since returning to the Department in 2017, my focus has been on improvement and execution. My focus has included beginning to fundamentally transform the Departmental and Bureau-level ethics programs to ingrain a culture of ethical compliance and reduce workplace misconduct; moving forward based on the direction and priorities articulated by the President; improving our business processes; and carefully considering suggestions for improvement received from within the organization.

I greatly appreciated the suggestions I have received from you. Going forward, I hope you will continue to share your thoughts of how we can continue to make the Department better. Please share them through the electronic suggestion box at ideas@ios.doi.gov and know that I welcome and consider them. 

Over the past 2 years, we have worked hard to implement the President’s agenda for the Department. The President has been clear in his direction and priorities. His vision has been expressed through a series of Executive orders and Presidential memoranda detailing goals for the Department, including: 

  • EO 13781 Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch;
  • EO 13783 Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth;
  • EO 13792 Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act;
  • EO 13795 Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy;
  • EO 13807 Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects; 
  • EO 13817 A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals;
  • EO 13840 Ocean Policy to Advance the Economic, Security, and Environmental Interests of the United States; 
  • EO 13855 Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk; and
  • The Presidential Memorandum on Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West.

These orders and memoranda have given the Department very detailed and specific instruction on several issues, and thus have formed the foundation of the Department’s objectives since January 2017. As Secretary, one of the duties I am tasked with is moving the Department and its Bureaus forward in a way that effectuates the President’s vision, consistent with our legal responsibilities. We have moved forward promptly to implement the President’s priorities, and we will continue to do so. This means the Department’s leadership team and I will be focused on:

  • Enhancing the visitor experience at our National Parks and public lands by better meeting our infrastructure and maintenance needs;
  • Delegating greater authority and accountability closer to the front line in our organization and modernizing the Department to better meet the needs of today and tomorrow;
  • Working to ensure meaningful consultation and self-determination for Tribes, Alaska Native communities, and our territories;
  • Building a meaningful conservation stewardship legacy by expanding public access for sport and recreation opportunities on public lands; 
  • Collaborating with states to protect and improve the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, while continuing the move toward shared conservation stewardship;
  • Modifying or eliminating unneeded and unnecessary regulations;
  • Administering the appropriate development of all forms of energy on our Federal lands and the Outer Continental Shelf;
  • Ensuring that actions taken by the Department and its Bureaus reflect the development and promotion of a culture of ethical compliance and a workplace free of harassment;
  • Implementing the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act; and
  • Modifying our business practices and processes to eliminate unnecessary steps and duplicative reviews, while maintaining rigorous environmental standards.


As I went through the confirmation process, I saw firsthand how people of different philosophies can find ways to work together to make progress on important issues. I have always believed that people can disagree on important issues without being disagreeable. 

As Secretary, I will strive to engage in and maintain communication with both the majority and the minority parties’ committee leadership in the House and the Senate in a manner that respects their role in our constitutional form of government. I expect the same from them. I will strive to listen to and understand the views of public officials without challenging their motivations or intentions merely because of a difference in opinion. 

I will also strive to address colleagues and citizens in a manner that I hope others would treat our daughters, sons, or partners. I ask you to do the same thing. When we interact with others, particularly the public, we represent the entire Federal Government. What may seem like an unimportant interaction to us in any given moment might be extraordinarily significant to the person with whom we are interacting. The decisions we make can have great consequences for them, and being respectful and decent in our interactions benefits everyone. 

Finally, I will continue to regularly communicate with all of you through messages like this one as well as in-person meetings to keep you informed of the Department’s priorities and progress. Again, I hope that you will continue to email your own suggestions through the electronic suggestion box.


I hope this message is helpful to you. I look forward to working with each of you as we carry out and balance the multitude of mandates and authorities that make up the organization we call the Department of the Interior. I believe we can and must do so in a way that is good for the natural environment as well as the communities, families, and individuals whose livelihoods depend on our decisions. It is a humbling honor to serve the public in this capacity and to work with you. 

Secretary David L. Bernhardt

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