With US public land use skyrocketing, the Bureau of Land Management unveiled a new initiative this week to improve access to acreage that is inaccessible or hard to reach due to land ownership patterns and other obstacles.
Public lands don’t serve the greater good if hunters, fishers, campers or other users can’t access them, BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said.
“I’m really excited about the work, because it turns out we’re going to need more space,” Stone-Manning told WyoFile on Sunday in Casper, where she spoke at the conference. Outdoor Writers Association of America. “We can’t make the pitch anymore, but we can open the pitch and we’ll need that space because people are coming.”
The BLM Dingell Act priority access list portal, which launched on Monday, does two things. First, it highlights 712 parcels of public land (reduced from over 6,000 originally designated) that have been identified for access improvements. The parcels cover approximately 3.5 million acres in 13 western states, including Wyoming. The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019, which contains provisions to preserve public access through civic engagement, enabled the initiative.
“This list will help guide our acquisition strategy for years to come, helping us prioritize acquisitions using the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other sources to really move the needle on public access” , Stone-Manning said.
The portal also allows users to nominate parcels they wish to be considered for future access improvements.
A recent report by backcountry GPS app onX identified more than 9 million acres of federal public lands in western states without permanent legal access — the vast majority under BLM management. Of those, according to the report, some 3.05 million are in Wyoming, where a checkerboard pattern of alternating land ownership has created high-profile disputes over so-called corner crossings.
“We are working hard to open up access to these lands,” Stone-Manning said of the plots identified by the portal, “connecting and consolidating them into contiguous blocks open to the public, working with partner organizations and s leveraging our best tool, funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The impact of acquiring land in the right places can be exponential in some cases, Stone-Manning said. “So, for example, if we pick up 100 acres, we could open 10,000 behind.
“And that’s the key, identifying the acquisitions that will have the most impact for people and the health of the landscape,” she said.
Stone-Manning, who was confirmed to lead the agency in late 2021 after four years without a chief, sat down with WyoFile to talk about energy development, growing recreation and wildlife concerns in Wyoming — where BLM manages over 18 million surface acres and 42.9 million acres of mining properties. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WyoFile: BLM Wyoming is #1 in federal gas production #2 in federal oil production. How does the BLM see the balance between power generation management and the Biden administration’s directive to shift to a clean energy economy?
TSM: I see the work of transitioning to a clean energy future as something to be taken with great care and trepidation. Wyoming helped power the nation. Revenue structures are built around this. We need to work very closely with states so that no community is left behind. But we also need to be clear that a transition has to happen and a transition will happen. The market is causing a transition at this point. Wyoming will continue to be a major energy producer, I’m sure, given the wind resource here. And it was beautifully sunny today. We just have to think about what that transition looks like and try to keep cultural politics out of the way as much as possible, because we think very carefully about market needs, business needs, community needs and the needs of the future.
WF: How will the BLM ensure that neither fossil fuels nor renewable energy negatively impacts wildlife habitat and cultural resources?
TSM: We have 245 million acres in our care on behalf of the American public, and our job is to make sure we pass those lands on to future generations in better shape than we found them. And yet, scientists tell us that we risk losing a third of our wildlife if we don’t take action big enough. And scientists tell us that climate change is among us – we don’t need scientists to tell us, living in the West, we can see it. So part of the job now is to get really smart about integrating climate resilience and conservation into everything we do.
And part of that is taking advantage of things like the bipartisan infrastructure act, $900 million coming to the Department of the Interior for restoration, putting people to work on our public lands, attacking things like cheater, putting back in place healthy grasslands, which then better withstand the fiery regime that is among us.
WF: In Wyoming, one of the main species that could come into conflict with is the sage-grouse. BLM oversees more of the bird’s habitat than any other federal agency. What actions is the BLM considering as it updates the grouse management master plan adopted in 2015 in light of data indicating a decline?
TSM: We will not be able to do this without the States being at the table with us. And with the understanding and approval of the communities in which we work. Again, it’s just kind of a lucid hard work of, ‘here’s where the data was in 2015 and here’s where it’s in 2022. And so we think this data in 2022 is pointing us in the direction of the filling.’ People are still doing this work. I don’t have the straight answer for you because I don’t know how [data are] will change.
It goes back to the whole notion of how I approach this work, which is that when you manage for a healthy landscape, the rest falls into place. It falls into place for people, it falls into place for wildlife, it falls into place for our economy.
WF: When you talk about bringing communities to the table, what does that look like?
TSM: It’s sitting down with governor’s offices and state fish and game departments and good, smart people who know what they’re doing. Wyoming has helped lead the way in sage grouse conservation. It is [the state] saying, ‘OK, that’s what we see.’ Then when we have a draft plan, we go to the communities as a whole and say, “What do you think? And ask for serious engagement and feedback to help you make the final decision.
WF: Recreation is growing throughout the West and in Wyoming. How does BLM plan to balance demand growth with resource conservation, and do you see it as a promising economic driver?
TSM: Recreation is already a giant economic driver across the West, and it will only continue to grow. One, people come here to recreate, two, as we’ve just seen in the pandemic, people have realized, “oh wait, this is a great place to live.” People move here in droves. And it creates all kinds of problems in communities with skyrocketing housing prices, but it also creates liability for us with increased recreation on the lands we manage. And so we have our work cut out. More than 80 million people visited BLM lands last year. It quickly snowballs into something beyond our control.
WF: The local Rock Springs office of the BLM has it was long expected to release revisions to its resource management plan, which covers the Red Desert. Do you have an update on where this process is?
TSM: They won’t have to wait for this administration. I spoke to the folks at the Rock Springs field office. I made a commitment to them that we were going to kick this thing out.
WF: Western Watersheds Project indicates that the BLM has been skip environmental reviews over the renewal of grazing permits for years, resulting in the degradation of millions of acres of public land. Can you speak to this claim or anything the BLM is doing to address it?
TSM: Congress passed legislation allowing people to get license extensions without doing NEPA. And that’s not OK. It is simply not acceptable that some producers are working with permits that are 20 years old. Because they know their license no longer matches the conditions on the ground, right? So hopefully the updates to the grazing rules that we’re hoping to bring across the finish line will increase flexibility in the role that they need, and the landscape needs, and we need to help us out of this landscape health problem.
WF: Should BLM corner crossing guidelines be revised in light of the not guilty verdict in the Carbon County case?
TSM: What interests me about navigating the bends are the deeply held values that underpin it. And I’m really interested, in light of this case, to dig in and take a closer look. I know the agency has had different opinions over the decades on this issue. And the last notice we had was in 1997.
WF: A great gathering of wild horses took place in southern Wyoming in 2021. The BLM announced fertility control efforts this month. Can you tell me about the strategy for finding solutions to manage the health of herds and public lands in what many would say is an intractable problem?
TSM: Sometimes it seems intractable, partly because it’s a landscape species that hasn’t evolved with the landscape and therefore has no natural predators. And so unless you manage them, unless you remove a few horses from the landscape, or you find long-term fertility control very quickly, populations double every four years. And it is untenable. It’s untenable for horses, it’s untenable for the landscape, it’s untenable for wildlife.