Interior secretary: Public land sales must consider effect on recreational access

WASHINGTON (CN) – Future public land sales will involve consideration, for the first time, of public access for hunting, fishing and other recreational activities, the secretary of the Interior announced this week.

“The Trump administration will continue to prioritize access so that people can hunt, fish, camp, and recreate on our public lands,” Acting Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement.

The order from Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, comes in the wake of a slash to Land and Water Conservation Fund funding in President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 budget. The fund directs money from oil and gas leasing to local, state and federal conservation projects.

Bernhardt meanwhile is set to appear on March 28 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for his confirmation hearing. If confirmed, Bernhardt will permanently replace former secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned in January amid numerous ethics scandals.

While the Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires BLM to work in conjunction with state and local authorities, and to use a public process to identify public lands to sell or exchange, the agency has never before considered public access in its criteria. The agency manages some 400,000 square miles of federal lands.

In a March 21 press release the Department of the interior said the order will require BLM to consult with federal agencies that manage adjoining tracts of land to coordinate “continued or improved public access.”

The BLM will now be required to consider alternative public access when a land sale would impede prior access, and must ensure that ongoing public access is a factor when the government considers trading public lands.

Public access will also weigh in favor of retention, according to the press release.

When supporting the sale or exchange of public lands, the BLM must address existing public access, access to adjacent public lands and any potential increase in access resulting from the sale or exchange.

The press release includes supportive statements from several conservation and hunting groups, including the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“Getting the American public outside to recreate, on federal public lands, is important to fostering a healthy public and one that supports conservation,” said Ed Carter, president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Other conservation organizations welcomed the news as well.

“Our organization is committed to protecting land for people and ensuring that everyone has access to nature,” Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land, said in an email. “We’re encouraged by the Department of Interior’s recognition that public access is of critical importance when it comes to potential land transactions.”