NAGS HEAD — The sun came out over the Bodie Island Lighthouse late Thursday morning just as Interior Secretary David Bernhardt wound down a chilly and drizzly morning touring Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Bernhardt was visiting the Outer Banks parks on the last leg of a four-day regional tour to promote President Trump’s “Opening Up America” guidelines to safely access public lands as the country starts loosening restrictions put in place last month to stop spread of COVID-19.
“I absolutely love the Outer Banks,” Bernhardt said to a small group of media, adding that he and his family had last visited Hatteras Island in 2016. “I love to fish, I love to boat.”
Bernhardt said his mission was to ensure the safety and health of the visiting public and park staff at the nation’s parks and wildlife refuges. To that end, he said there are 60 public health officials available to work with parks to help take proper precautionary health measures.
Bernhardt said that the agency worked with Congress “early on” to ensure that the parks had resources to address the safety measures.
“So everything is important and we’ve got to take it in stages,” he said.
Visitors at park sites and beaches are encouraged to “clump” in family or group units, with each unit maintaining safe social distance from each other.
“I think America is realizing this is a good thing to do,” Bernhardt said.
In response to a question, the secretary said that he had acknowledged that climate is changing and it is “a factor in decisions.” Sea level rise and other impacts, he added, under Interior Department regulations, must be considered in environmental planning.
“I know there’s effects here,” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt, who was confirmed last year, was also asked about when action would resume on the proposed Atlantic offshore oil and gas lease sales, which have been strongly opposed on the Outer Banks, and whether the economic crisis from closed beaches would be a factor in the risk assessment.
Responding, Bernhardt said that the lease proposal is “on pause.” But he assured that when it is picked up again, there would be opportunities for state and community input.
“I’ve worked in this area for a long time, and I don’t know of a single instance where there’s been leasing that was opposed by the state,” he said. “I don’t know of a single instance … In terms of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act history, I’m not aware of that. And I’m pretty familiar with that history.”
Enacted in 1953, the act defines the Interior secretary’s responsibilities in the administration of mineral exploration and development of the outer continental shelf.
Bernhardt started his tour of parks on Monday at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and in the afternoon, he visited Blue Ridge National Park headquarters in Asheville. He then traveled to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians’ reservation in Cherokee; Great Smoky National Park, Guilford Courthouse at National Military Park in Greensboro and stopped at a local business, Regulator Marine, in Edenton before arriving on the Outer Banks Thursday morning.