In an early effort to earn points with conservation groups, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is set to sign a pair of secretarial orders that he said will improve public access to federal lands and protect key habitat for moose and bighorn sheep.
Bernhardt, an avid hunter and former fossil fuel lobbyist, unveiled limited details about the upcoming directives during a speech Wednesday morning at the North American Wildlife & Natural Resources Conference in Denver. The move comes a month after President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Bernhardt to replace former agency chief Ryan Zinke, who resigned in early January under a cloud of ethics scandals.
One order expands a secretarial order Zinke signed in February 2018 directing agency officials to work with western states to “enhance and improve the quality of big-game winter range and migration corridor habitat” for elk, antelope and mule deer, with an ultimate goal being to expand opportunities for hunting. The new directive will apply to moose and bighorn sheep, as well as summer range habitat for those species, Bernhardt said.
Zinke’s initiative on migration corridors was widely celebrated, only to have the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management turn around and offer oil and gas leases in the very habitat the initiative was meant to protect. A recent analysis by the Center for American Progress found that during the Trump administration’s first two years, nearly one-fifth of the oil and gas leases offered by BLM in the Intermountain West region were in areas identified as important migration or wintering grounds for elk, mule deer and antelope. In New Mexico, 82 percent of leases were in these habitats.
In an emailed statement, Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Colorado-based Center for Western Priorities, said Bernhardt “can’t use his signature to cover up the damage he has already caused to our public lands in less than two years at Interior.”
“Even as he put his pen to paper today, Bernhardt continues to lease off hundreds of thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat for oil and gas drilling,” he added.
Bernhardt’s second order would change how the agency goes about determining if parcels of federal land are suitable for sale or transfer to state control. The Federal Lands Policy and Management Act of 1976 allows for tracts of public land to be considered for sale if they meet certain criteria, including being “difficult and uneconomic to manage,” if the land is “no longer required” for the specific purpose for which it was acquired, and if its sale would “serve important public objectives,” including the “expansion of communities and economic development.”
Moving forward, BLM will be required to “think very carefully” about how any potential sale, transfer or exchange of federal land would impact hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation, Bernhardt said.
This new test is “focused on enhancing access,” Bernhardt said.
The Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for more information Wednesday. Bernhardt’s appearance was not announced to media, and his name did not appear on the conference’s official program.
It’s unclear whether the secretarial order related to land disposal will result in fewer sell-offs. The Trump administration has repeatedly said it opposes selling off federal lands or transferring control to states. And yet, Interior has proposed doing just that.
Last August, the agency considered pawning off more than 1,600 acres that until recently were protected as part of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as HuffPost first reported. The recommendation ― buried in a draft resource management plan ― called for the selling or transferring of 16 federal parcels, including 120 acres adjacent to property owned by Utah state Rep. Mike Noel (R), an ally of the administration and a staunch opponent of the Clinton-era monument.
At the time, a BLM spokeswoman said that then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “still opposes the sale or transfer of federal land,” but that under the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act the agency “is required by law as part of its land use planning process to identify lands potentially suitable for disposal.”
The administration ended up scrapping that proposal two days later, with Bernhardt telling staff in a memo that the plan was inconsistent with department policy, as the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
“The failure to capture this inconsistency stops with me,” he wrote.
BLM has since proposed at least two more land sales, including 70 acres of an important wildlife conservation area adjacent to California’s San Bernardino National Forest to a limestone mining company that unlawfully dumped mineral waste materials on it. And in November, Zinke and Bernhardt hosted at Interior headquarters members of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch brothers-backed nonprofit that advocates handing over control of federal lands to states.
During his speech Wednesday, Bernhardt said the Trump administration “generally” opposes “large-scale transfer,” but later added that “not everything is required to stay in federal hands.”
Despite having prioritized hunting and outdoor recreation, the agency has had a rocky history with the outdoor sporting community. Many groups say Interior has consistently prioritized the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda over habitat and resource conservation.
Bernhardt faced widespread criticism from conservation groups during the 35-day government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history. Even with a skeleton staff, Bernhardt found a way to press ahead with fossil fuel development. And in an unprecedented move, he directed the National Park Service to dip into park entrance fees to combat garbage and sanitation issues and keep sites open.
Along with secretarial orders, Bernhardt announced Wednesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to lift federal protections for gray wolves in the Lower 48.
“Like you, many of our experts believe that the wolf no longer needs the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” he said.
This story has been updated with the findings of a Center for American Progress study.