Bernhardt Senate hearing evokes "balancing" land use AND Merle Haggard vs. John Denver!

We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy,

Like the hippies out in San Francisco do..


Merle Haggard, "Okie from Muskogee"

As it should be, the question of balancing environmental protection vs. economic development was a key theme at the Senate confirmation hearing of nominee David Bernhardt for Secretary of the Interior on March 28.

Bernhardt served as Deputy Secretary under Ryan Zinke until Zinke's resignation on January 2. President Trump nominated Bernhardt for the position on February 4. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 14-6 to recommend Bernhardt to the full Senate on April 4.

Although Bernhardt is controversial, perhaps especially in California, his confirmation by the full Senate is very likely. The last time a recommended nominee failed Senate confirmation was in 1989 when John Tower's transgressions had come to light - so President George H.W. Bush went to his second choice for Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney.

The Committee hearing on March 28 had few theatrics, except for aggressive questioning by Senator Ron Wyden (OR), who asked a series of questions about conflicts of interest. Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (AK) then strongly rebuked Wyden.

The theme of how to balance protection of natural resources with the economic development on the 500,000,000 acres of land (about 20% of the United States) managed by Interior arose in virtually all Senators' questions. At one point, Bernhardt noted that he agreed with Gifford Pinchot, who famously opined a century ago that management should be guided by the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. Pinchot also invoked the phrase when he lobbied Theodore Roosevelt to support a dam in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley. (The full 2 1/2 hour hearing is available on video.)

The first 90 minutes of the hearing went largely as expected. When his turn came, however, Senator Steve Daines (MT) opened with a bombshell:

"I very much appreciate the balance you bring to this very important job. In Montana we say that's the balance between Merle Haggard and John Denver." (video at 1:28:00)

Whoa! Hold it right there partner! Isn't politics polarized enough? Good thing that neither the nominee nor the other Senators took the bait, as our elected representatives might have been distracted from doing their job in a cooperative manner.

Those under 60 or unfamiliar with country music may be excused if they do not fully understand the inflammatory nature of Daines' deadpan comment. Haggard and Denver have epitomized polar opposites in country (and pop) music since the late 1960's. Both men have passed but their legacies continue.



Merle Haggard


John Denver



Merle Haggard was a salt-of-the-earth (and ex-convict) singer, who clearly associated himself with everyday people with songs like Workin Man Blues:

 Hey hey, the working man, the working man like me

I ain't never been on welfare, that's one place I won't be

Cause I'll be working long as my two hands are fit to use

I drink a little beer in a tavern

Sing a little bit of these working man blues

Haggard is, however, best known for "Okie from Muskogee", a song that extolled traditional values and criticized marijuana, draft dodging and hippies (Merle later explained that he had never hated hippies and was "dumb as a rock" when he wrote the song.): 

We don't make a party out of lovin';

We like holdin' hands and pitchin' woo;

We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy,

Like the hippies out in San Francisco do

Few hippies took offense. Bill Kirchen, author of Hooray for Hetch Hetchy, honors Merle in his recent classic "Hounds of Bakersfield". And Pure Prairie League called him the greatest country singer alive in their tribute to Haggard:

I'll fix your flat tire Merle

Don't ya get your sweet country pickin' fingers all covered with erl

Cause you're a honky, I know, but Merle you got soul

And I'll fix your flat tire Merle

Legend that Merle Haggard might be, John Denver has sold a lot more songs (in a shorter career - he died in a plane crash at 54). Even today, for example, Spotify lists John Denver with 5,000,000 listeners compared to Haggard's 1,000,000 

Denver's "Take me home, Country Roads", was recorded in 1971 and remains popular today. A year later, he recorded "Rocky Mountain High", one of those songs with a chorus that can be tough to get out of your head.

I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky

Friends around the campfire

And everybody's high

Rocky Mountain high (Colorado)

Rocky Mountain high (Colorado)

Rocky Mountain high (Colorado)

Rocky Mountain high (Colorado)

Rocky Mountain high (Colorado)

"Rocky Mountain High was both loved and hated. Many "Real" country music fans regarded Denver as less than genuine and felt that he had invaded their world. At the 1975 Country Music Association Awards, Charlie Rich literally burned the envelop on stage (at 2:20 in video) when he saw that he was supposed to deliver the Entertainer of the Year award to Denver. (Yes, kids, Kanye West's treatment of Taylor Swift in 2009 was not the first instance of blatant disrespect at an awards show.)

And Garry Trudeau, author and artist of Doonesbury mocked Denver through fellow Aspen resident Uncle Duke (a thinly-veiled characterization of Hunter S. Thompson), who threatened to shoot him if he did not stop singing "Rocky Mountain High" (The first strip in a five panel series is shown below).




Keenly aware of the thread of dislike for Denver, writer Donald Ian Bull was moved to post a confessional of sorts, titled "I like John Denver", but not until a few years ago.

Let's give Senator Daines credit for injecting a little humor into his political commentary - we would all be better off if more politicians did so. If I get a chance to ask him to expound on his provocative analogy, I will.

But back to "balance", and the conflict between Pinchot and Muir.

When Pinchot favored supporting a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley, less than 10,000 people per year were visiting Yosemite National Park. Today the number is 500 times as large. Every single municipal water system in the United States is able to serve its customers without needing to invade one of our most special national parks to build a dam.

Had Pinchot the foresight of Frederick Law Olmstead regarding the future of Yosemite (as expressed in an 1865 report), he might well have thought and counseled President Theodore Roosevelt differently. And were he alive today, we believe Gifford Pinchot would support restoration of Hetch Hetchy as doing the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.