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Interior boss order aims to protect US public land access

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BY MATTHEW BROWN
The Associated Press

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 identify alternatives to access that could be lost during land sales or exchanges.

The move could help boost Bernhardt’s credentials among conservation groups ahead of a Senate confirmation hearing next week 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.

The acting secretary said in a statement that the Trump 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 address the issue and close what they considered a loophole in federal land policies.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost 400,000 square miles 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 of Land Management has identified for potential sale 11 parcels of land totaling 4.3 square miles 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."