Top politicians are in Vail, Colorado, this week for the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association.
The governors of 11 Western states will meet Wednesday with Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. They spoke Monday with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt about everything from Medicaid to crumbling infrastructure at national parks.
“We have proposed as part of our budget submission a proposal to use a revenue from activities on public lands to fund a funding source that would allow us to enhance that infrastructure,” said Bernhardt. “We just need to have the support of the American people to move forward because the infrastructure is crumbling, our roads are crumbling and it's time to address that problem.”
Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities said the governors missed a big opportunity to press Bernhardt about climate change.
“Very soon there are going to be no glaciers in Glacier National Park and that is the existential threat that David Bernhardt is not addressing right now,” said Weiss. “He is one of just a few people in the country who has both the authority and obligation to address the threat that climate change poses to western states and to western economies.”
Bernhardt has been criticized for his former role as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry. As Politico has reported, his old firm is now pushing to expand a limestone mine near where the governors gathered, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
The Colorado Independent reports that Bernhardt said “he’s proud to be 'expeditiously' processing applications” for mining and drilling activity.
Protesters concerned about that mine and other development on public lands marched down bike paths and kayaked down the creek outside the hotel where Bernhardt was speaking. They wore swamp creature masks and donned T-shirts that read, “Keep your oily hands off Colorado's public lands.” Swamp creatures have appeared in other settings alongside Bernhardt, including at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Bernhardt’s predecessor, Ryan Zinke, had planned to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to this part of the country. Bernhardt said he's in the process of reevaluating whether some could be better done out West, and if some are necessary at all.
"I expect fully that we'll move forward pretty soon in doing that and that it will involve a substantial element of the BLM folks in D.C. being repositioned,” said Bernhardt.
Denver was proposed as one new location for the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. As the Mountain West News Bureau has reported, it's unclear if Congress will grant the funding necessary to make that move happen.
The purpose of the Western Governors Association meeting is to discuss issues that affect the West.
This year the group announced an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to collaborate on responding to wildfire and to limiting a prolific plant called cheatgrass, one of a number of species addressed in a newly released report on invasive species. The report included a recommendation to monitor water for the DNA of invasives like zebra mussels so that states can launch a rapid response against them at the first detection.
They governors also discussed tools for water management and the lack of internet access among rural communities in our region.
The Western Governors Association meeting continues through Wednesday.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.