BILLINGS, Mont. — Acting U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt ordered federal land managers on Thursday to give greater priority to access for hunting, fishing and other kinds of recreation when the government considers selling or trading public land.
The secretarial order comes amid longstanding complaints that millions of acres of state and federal land in the American West can be reached only by traveling across private property or small slivers of public land.
Bernhardt's order requires the Bureau of Land Management to come up with alternatives to access routes that could be lost during land sales or exchanges. It also helps prevent land from being selected in the first place for potential sale.
The move could help boost Bernhardt's conservation credentials ahead of a Senate confirmation hearing March 28, in which Democrats are likely to highlight his past work as an energy industry lobbyist.
Bernhardt has been nominated to replace former Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned in January.
Several hunting and conservation groups voiced support for the action, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Association of State Fish and Wildlife Agencies. But others said it appeared politically calculated to curry favor among lawmakers ahead of the hearing.
The critics pointed to drastic cuts in President Donald Trump's proposed budget to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects nationwide.
Bernhardt said in a statement that the administration "has and will continue to prioritize access so that people can hunt, fish, camp and recreate on our public lands."
Hunting and fishing advocates had pressed the administration to close what they considered a loophole in federal land policies that allows some sites to be sold.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost 400,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) of federal land. A 1976 law requires agency officials to identify lands for potential sale or exchange, but not to look at potential effects on recreational access.
As a result, the bureau has identified for potential sale sites such as 11 parcels of land totaling 4.3 square miles (11.3 square kilometers) adjacent to the Bighorn National Forest west of Buffalo, Wyoming, said Joel Webster with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The area sits beneath the towering peaks of the Bighorn Mountains. One of the parcels identified for potential sale has a hiking trail passing directly through it, Webster said.
Another area identified for potential sale — an 8-square mile (20-square kilometer) tract of mostly grasslands near Miles City, Montana — is popular for deer, antelope and bird hunting and can be accessed from a nearby highway.
"It is one of the best mule deer hunting areas in the nation," Webster said. "The BLM just has not been thinking about recreational access when they've been looking to sell lands. We think this order means much fewer acres with access are going to be available for sale."
National Parks Conservation Association Vice President Kristen Brengel said the order's timing — exactly one week before Bernhardt appears in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — casts doubt over the administration's purpose.
"They're paying lip service to an issue a lot of people care about," Brengel said. "When the president's budget doesn't fund the most prominent program that would guarantee this access, this is completely empty."