Commissioners from Mesa and other area counties had the opportunity to bend the ear of the acting head of Interior Department — also President Trump's nominee to be the department's next secretary — during a visit to Washington D.C. over recent days.
Mesa County commissioners Rose Pugliese and John Justman participated in separate meetings with Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, where they were able to talk about issues such as the proposed Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project in Oregon.
Justman met with Bernhardt and other Interior officials Monday as part of a Colorado Counties Inc. contingent, while Pugliese visited with him Tuesday along with several commissioners from Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties.
"It doesn't hurt that Mike Samson was (Bernhardt's) teacher," Pugliese said in explaining the origins of the Tuesday meeting.
Bernhardt is a Rifle native, and Samson, a Garfield commissioner, taught Bernhardt at Rifle High School. Pugliese said Samson organized the meeting and invited her to participate. Samson also gave Bernhardt letters of support from Garfield County commissioners and Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado for his nomination to be Interior secretary, Pugliese said.
Pugliese said those letters convey the message that Bernhardt "is supportive of the initiatives that we are trying to work on in our counties in Colorado."
Bernhardt is awaiting Senate action on his nomination. He had been deputy Interior secretary while Ryan Zinke had held the top job.
Pugliese said commissioners used the opportunity of Tuesday's meeting to reiterate the importance of the Jordan Cove project to western Colorado. Local supporters of the project are hoping it can provide access to Asian markets for natural gas drilled in area counties.
Jordan Cove is currently under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which had rejected a previous project application.
Pugliese said Bernhardt said Interior's purview over the project involves Bureau of Land Management right of way. A proposed pipeline in Oregon to supply it would partly cross BLM lands.
She said he didn't otherwise speak to the Jordan Cove project specifically, but instead their discussion "was on LNG exports generally, and the Trump administration has been public in its support and interest in promoting LNG exports for economic and geopolitical reasons. Jordan Cove, if approved, will be the only West Coast LNG export facility."
Justman said he used Monday's meeting to remind Bernhardt of Mesa County's interest in having the BLM's national headquarters moved to the county from Washington, D.C.
"He just kind of laughed; he said, yeah, I think we've heard that before," Justman said.
The Interior Department previously has indicated it plans to move the headquarters out West. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., has been a leading voice calling for the headquarters to be relocated to Grand Junction.
Justman said Bernhardt and others at Interior said they would look into concerns in Mesa County about drainage system problems as they relate to runoff from BLM lands. He said participants in Monday's meeting also discussed the desire to see more federal timber contracts, and longer-term ones due to the cost of timber-related equipment.
Bernhardt tweeted about Monday's get-together, "Great meeting with Colorado county commissioners this afternoon. The commissioners included some folks who have known me since I was a kid. Great chance to visit about our activities in the great state of Colorado."
Meanwhile, a North Fork Valley group recently returned from their own trip to Washington to voice a different perspective when it comes to public-lands issues, including how those lands are being managed by the Trump administration and by federal officials including Bernhardt.
Pete Kolbenschlag with Colorado Farm & Food Alliance was joined by others including representatives of the Valley Organic Growers Association and the Western Slope Conservation Center in the trip. They visited BLM planning specialists, Department of Agriculture officials with Forest Service oversight, members of western Colorado's congressional delegation and staff with the House Natural Resources Committee.
Kolbenschlag said one concern they brought up was abbreviated public comment periods associated with oil and gas lease sales. Those shortened comment periods are among the Interior initiatives Bernhardt and other officials have been involved in as part of the Trump administration's energy dominance agenda.
Bernhardt, an attorney, previously has lobbied for oil and gas interests, which is a concern for some conservation and activist groups.
"I think having people with those types of ties to industry leading the Interior Department is problematic in a lot of people's minds, myself included," Kolbenschlag said.