A mid-1980s Rifle High School yearbook includes three unrelated photos that, in retrospect, have become a historical oddity in that they all appear on the same page.

One shows then-teacher Mike Samson dressed up in white T-shirt and sunglasses, sporting a "big-wheel" plastic tricycle and portraying the "Leader of the Pack" during a festive school function.

Another depicts Scott McInnis, then a member of the state House of Representatives, presenting a flag from the state Capitol building to the school.

A third shows a mop-haired freshman, David Bernhardt, wearing a sport coat, too-short pants and an oversized fake mustache for his role in a school play.

These days, Samson serves as a Garfield County commissioner. McInnis is a commissioner in Mesa County, after having represented western Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And that scrawny freshman, Bernhardt? He's on the verge of being confirmed as the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. He would be one of a handful of people with Colorado ties to have held the job. Among the others, Ken Salazar was secretary under President Barack Obama and Gale Norton served in that capacity under the George W. Bush administration.

Bernhardt's life went on to intersect with those of McInnis and Samson. Bernhardt worked for McInnis in Congress. Samson, in his current job, has interacted with Bernhardt while Bernhardt served as deputy secretary of the Interior Department under then-Secretary Ryan Zinke, and in Bernhardt's current role as acting secretary since Zinke departed the top job at the end of last year amid ethics concerns.

McInnis and Samson are staunch supporters of the man they once mentored, along with others who have known Bernhardt over the years and praise his intellect, abilities, accessibility and actions while working at the Interior Department. In that sense, Bernhardt's supporters depict what might be described as one half of a "Tale of Two Bern-hardts" when it comes to President Trump's nominee to run the Interior Department, given the heavy criticism Bernhardt has come under from some quarters.

Samson, who has visited his former student multiple times in Washington, D.C., to talk Interior issues of interest to local counties, recently described Bernhardt as "very intelligent" and "very thorough," and someone who "wants to make sure things are done right and done right the first time."

McInnis has described Bernhardt as extremely hard-working and a "natural fit" for the Interior secretary job, saying he's keenly familiar with the water, energy and other issues the department deals with.

A controversial nomination

But it is just such issues, and Bernhardt's involvement with them both at Interior and while an attorney and lobbyist representing water, oil and gas and other interests, that has resulted in staunch criticism of Bernhardt in some circles. The result has been a confirmation process that even his supporters in the Senate agree has become highly contentious.

"I think it's very clear you've got some pretty well-funded groups that are working very hard, very energetically against his nomination," U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday.

Murkowski joined 13 others on the committee, including U.S. Sen, Cory Gardner, R-Colo., in voting Thursday in support of confirming Bernhardt as the next Interior secretary. Six senators voted against Bernhardt's confirmation.

His nomination could be considered by the full Senate this week. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has indicated he will vote against confirming Bernhardt, but the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to confirm the nomination.

The Montana-based Western Values Project is among the groups working hard in opposition to Bernhardt. It's focusing that opposition on conflict-of- interest concerns arising from Bernhardt's past work for the high-profile law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Jayson O'Neill, the Western Values Project's deputy director, said his group is concerned about the ethical questions that arise in the case of a nominee who has represented so many private entities that now come before the department he has been tapped to run.

It "appears to me that he's really kind of tipped the scale more for those former clients than he has balanced the multi-use directives of our Department of Interior in assuring that all voices are heard in important decisions about how we manage … public lands," O'Neill said.

Said Jim Ramey, Colorado director for the Wilderness Society, "You look at policy after policy and he has really fulfilled the oil and gas industry's wish list, which is unfortunate but not surprising given that he used to work for those same folks who are asking for those policy changes."

During Bernhardt's confirmation hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., accused Bernhardt of having lied regarding ethical issues, an allegation Bernhardt denied.

Wyden said this week on the Senate floor, "The Senate could be on its way to installing an Interior secretary who could almost immediately face an investigation for corruption and lying under oath."

Such criticism can be hard to hear, especially if you happen to be Bernhardt's mother.

Carolyn Bernhardt-Jones, who lives in Greeley, said she feels for people in the political arena who are subject to attacks on their personalities and integrity.

"That's what's really upsetting to not only me but I think probably David, too, is any question of his integrity, because there is no question," she said.

She added, "David's only client now is the USA. It doesn't matter who was a client previously. Now he works for America."

Early years

Bernhardt "was the perfect, good boy. I mean, what is a mother going to say," Bernhardt-Jones said when asked about her son's early years.

As someone in the best position to know, she clarified one matter surrounding Bernhardt's background — where he was born. Actually, it was Kansas, she said. Bernhardt commonly has been described as a Rifle native, including by The Daily Sentinel and in his biography on the Interior Department website. Bernhardt-Jones said the family moved to New Castle when he was maybe 4 or 5, and he then grew up in the Rifle area.

Bernhardt's mom worked in real estate, while his dad, Gerald, was a county extension agent. Bernhardt was the oldest of two sons; his brother Brian became a physician and lives in Sacramento, California.

A photo in his mother's collection shows the two boys on their first pony with Colorado mountains for a backdrop; she says both of her sons developed a deep love of the land.

Other family photos depict Bernhardt wearing a cowboy hat and showing livestock at the county fair; he was active in 4-H, his mom said.

Rifle High School yearbook photos from the mid-1980s show he played football, participated in the speech club and was heavily involved in drama, playing prominent roles in productions. One yearbook also profiles the work he and others did in creating the "Independance Hall," a local teen club where youths could dance, play games and otherwise enjoy each other's company in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

"It was a neat experience for him to learn to set up a business and the things you have to do to set up a business, which a lot of people in Washington I think do not know," Bernhardt-Jones said.

Another learning experience for Bernhardt, his family, Rifle and much of western Colorado was the oil shale bust. After what was then Exxon stopped its massive project outside Parachute aimed at converting a kerogen-like substance from rock into oil at a commercial scale, thousands left the region. Housing prices and businesses suffered.

Bernhardt-Jones said her son did yard work for some of the properties that had gone into foreclosure.

"He witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of what can happen in a boom/bust economy," said Bernhardt-Jones.

She said she thinks that gave him a sense of balance when it comes to boosting the economy and protecting the environment.

Though active in high school through his junior year, Bernhardt didn't stick around Rifle to graduate there in what would have been 1988. Instead he left high school early, got his GED and went on to the University of Northern Colorado, where he got a bachelor's degree in just three years before going on to law school.

His mom said he always did well in school but also was "in a hurry."

"He needed more challenge than he had. I think he was just ready to get on with his life. He's always had a drive. I think he's just very self-motivated, (with a) very strong work ethic."

'Able and energetic'

Rifle resident Russ George got to see those qualities first-hand. George said Bernhardt came into his law firm's office one day and asked for, and got, an internship. George was impressed by Bernhardt's eagerness and ability to get things done.

"The biggest problem was he was so able and energetic we couldn't keep him busy. Anything we asked him to do he could do," George said.

George said that was in 1992, when George was putting together his first campaign for the state Legislature. (George eventually would serve as speaker of the state House of Representatives and in state Cabinet-level roles.)

"He essentially took over sort of the legwork and nuts and bolts of getting the campaign up and going and still we couldn't keep him busy," George said.

George said he then told Bernhardt to drive to Grand Junction and find a guy who was running for Congress.

That person was McInnis. Bernhardt helped with the McInnis campaign and eventually worked for McInnis in Washington.

One thing kept leading to another. Norton became Interior secretary, and was familiar with Bernhardt's work while he was in McInnis' office, and hired him, George said. He served in several roles during the George W. Bush administration, rising to become solicitor, where he served as legal counsel to the Interior Department in one of the top departmental positions, though he was still just in his 30s.

Said George, "His talent is when he takes on a task or it's handed to him, he really is eager about it and really gets after it."

He said Bernhardt becomes a student of whatever the issue is, which George thinks has helped him win over rank-and-file Interior employees.

"I think he just stuns people by doing the work himself," he said. "It's a powerful leadership tool that he uses to full value."

Policy, ethics questions

Bernhardt's leadership skills may be one thing, but it's the direction he has helped take the Interior Department that concerns some.

Ramey, with the Wilderness Society, said that putting ethical concerns aside, "the policies that he's put in place are so out of step with Colorado values" that it's "deeply troubling to see his nomination move forward."

He cited actions Bernhardt has been involved with that include the Bureau of Land Management moving to largely scrap rules governing methane emissions and hydraulic fracturing, reducing public-comment opportunities on oil and gas leasing proposals, and reworking plans governing greater sage-grouse protections on BLM lands in Colorado and other western states.

"It's just really unfortunate to see David Bernhardt in his role at Interior prioritizing doing whatever he can for the oil and gas industry, pursuing energy dominance anywhere, everywhere on public land, at the expense of other uses."

In his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt testified that President Trump provided the Interior Department with clear direction on his priorities, and the department has "moved with dispatch to implement his vision." That movement has won Bernhardt and the department general praise from others, including Mesa and Garfield county commissioners.

Bernhardt said at his hearing that the department has been "working to reduce unnecessary burdens without sacrificing environmental outcomes," and that the revised sage-grouse plans have the unanimous support of the governors of six affected states, which wasn't the case with the previous plans.

O'Neill said one of the ethical concerns of the Western Values Project is that Bernhardt previously represented the Independent Petroleum Association of America before going back to the Interior Department and overseeing revisions to the sage-grouse plans.

"Those revisions that were made almost exactly, we've documented, replicate what industry and this association have requested," O'Neill said.

O'Neill's group also is among critics of Bernhardt's move to review Endangered Species Act protections for endangered fish in California, after he advocated for doing so while lobbying for Westlands Water District in California.

O'Neill also pointed to what he said were favorable recent Interior Department decisions regarding a water district in North Dakota that Bernhardt previously had represented.

"So you have at the very minimum three examples in which indirectly and directly his former clients have seen favorable decisions from this Interior Department," O'Neill said.

Bernhardt said during his confirmation hearing that he has followed "an incredibly robust screening process" to ensure he hasn't met with former clients and to recuse himself where required.

But a recusal period he has committed to is running out when it comes to such clients, and he has declined to commit to extending that period, insisting he now works for the public and is good at standing up to industry interests.

He told senators, "When I think about this, one of the things I really think about is that I have a very particular skill set — strength, creativity, judgment — that I'm basically handcuffed and not in the game for the American people if I am recusing myself, and I don't think that that is really the best strategy."

Victim of politics?

George voices frustration at the criticism being leveled at Bernhardt, feeling he's simply paying the price for having been a good lawyer, and is a victim of "the grist of this modern mill we're all in."

Said George, "I confess to you that David can do no wrong to me. … I'm particularly wounded by the current game that's being played. I know as well as anybody alive how honest and decent he is and how unfair this game is to an honest and decent person."

McInnis said, "There's nothing in what they've looked at that disqualifies David Bernhardt. But it has nothing to do with David Bernhardt. This all has to do with TV time and presidential politics."

The controversy over Bernhardt aside, the fact that a former Rifle High School student has been nominated for Interior secretary has been exciting for Lisa Zeman, clerk at the school's library, to learn while helping the Sentinel find old yearbook photos of him.

"Then I had to look him up (online) and then I saw a picture of him with President Trump and I thought, dang, that's pretty cool," she said.

As for Bernhardt's actions regarding the energy industry, said Zeman, "My husband is in oil and gas and he works for a gas company and I was telling him that and he was like, 'Right on.' For him, he thought that was pretty cool."

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