With usage skyrocketing on America’s public lands, the Bureau of Land Management this week unveiled a new initiative aimed at improving access to acreage that is unreachable or challenging to reach because of land ownership patterns and other obstacles. 

Public land doesn’t serve the greater good if hunters, anglers, campers or other users can’t get to it, 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 Sunday in Casper, where she spoke at the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference. “We can’t make any more land, but we can open up the land and we’re gonna need that space because people are coming.” 

The BLM Dingell Act Priority Access List Portal, which launched Monday, does two things. First, it highlights 712 parcels of public lands (whittled down from upwards of 6,000 originally nominated) that have been identified for access improvements. The parcels cover about 3.5 million acres in 13 Western states, including Wyoming. The 2019 John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which contains provisions aimed at preserving public access through civic engagement, enabled the initiative. 

“This list is going to help guide our acquisition strategy for years to come, helping us prioritize acquisitions using the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other sources to truly move the needle on public access,” Stone-Manning said. 

The portal also allows users to nominate parcels they want considered for future access improvements. 

A recent report by the backcountry GPS app onX identified more than 9 million acres of federal public lands in Western states with no permanent legal access — the vast majority under BLM management. Of those, the report said, some 3.05 million are in Wyoming, where a checkerboard pattern of alternating land ownership has created high-profile conflicts over what’s known as corner crossing. 

The BLM’s newly launched Dingell Act Priority Access List Portal allows users to nominate land parcels they want considered for improved access. Users can also view BLM-identified parcels, such as the Sand Hill parcel near Casper, seen in green. (Screenshot/Bureau of Land Management)

“We’re working hard to open access to these lands,” Stone-Manning said of the portal’s identified parcels, “connect and consolidate them into contiguous blocks open to the public, working with partner organizations and relying on our very best tool, funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

The impact of acquiring lands in the right places can be exponential in certain cases, Stone-Manning said. “So for example, if we pick up 100 acres, we might open up 10,000 behind it.

“And that’s the key, identifying the acquisitions that will provide the most impact for both people and the health of the landscape,” she said. 

Stone-Manning, who was confirmed to helm the agency in late 2021 following four years with no leader, sat down with WyoFile to talk about energy development, growing recreation and wildlife concerns in Wyoming — where BLM manages more than 18 million surface acres and 42.9 million acres of mineral estate. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

WyoFile: BLM Wyoming is No. 1 in federal gas production No. 2 in federal oil production. How is the BLM contemplating the balance between management for energy production and the Biden administration’s directive to transition to a clean-energy economy?

TSM: I see the job of transitioning to a clean energy future as something to take with great care and trepidation. Wyoming helped power the nation. The revenue structures are built around that. We need to work very closely with states so we don’t leave any communities behind. But we also have to be clear about the fact that a transition has to occur, and a transition will occur. The market is driving a transition at this point. Wyoming will continue to be a big energy producer, I’m sure, given the wind resource here. And it was beautifully sunny today. We just need to be thoughtful about what that transition looks like and try to keep cultural politics out of it as much as possible as we think very carefully about market needs, business needs, community needs and needs of the future.

WF: How will the BLM ensure that neither fossil fuels nor renewable energy negatively impact 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 these lands down to future generations in better shape than we found them. And yet, scientists are telling us that we stand to lose a third of our wildlife if we don’t take some pretty big measures. And scientists are telling us that climate change is among us — we don’t need scientists to tell us this, living in the West we can see it. So part of the work now is to really get smart about building climate resilience and conservation into everything we do. 

A mountain biker rides at Johnny Behind the Rocks on BLM land near Lander. (Leslie Kehmeier/Bureau of Land Management/FlickrCC)

And part of that is taking advantage of things like the bipartisan infrastructure law, $900 million coming to the Department of Interior for restoration, putting people to work on our public lands, attacking things like cheatgrass, getting healthy grasslands back into place, which then better withstand the fire regime that is among us.

WF: In Wyoming one of the main species that conflict could happen with is sage grouse. BLM oversees more of the bird’s habitat than any other federal agency. What measures are the BLM contemplating as it updates the grouse management blueprint adopted in 2015 in light of data indicating decline?

TSM: We’re not gonna be able to do it without the states being right at the table with us. And with understanding and sign-off from the communities in which we work. Again, that’s just sort of hard clear-eyed work of, ‘here’s where the data was in 2015 and here’s where it is in 2022. And so we think that that data in 2022 is pointing us in fill-in-the-blank direction.’ Folks are still doing that work. I don’t have the direct answer for you because I don’t know how [data are] going to change.

It comes back to the whole notion of the way I approach this work, which is when you’re managing 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. 

A male greater sage grouse struts on a lek. (BLM)

WF: When you talk about getting communities to the table, what does that look like?

TSM: It’s through 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 on sage-grouse conservation. It’s [the state] saying, ‘OK, this is what we’re seeing.’ Then when we have a draft plan, we go to the communities at large and say, ‘What do you think?’ And ask for serious engagement and feedback to help drive the final decision.

WF: Recreation is growing across the West and in Wyoming. How does BLM envision striking a balance between growing demand and preservation of the resources, and do you see it as a promising economic engine?

TSM: Recreation is a giant economic engine already across the West, and that’s only going to continue to grow. First, people come here to recreate, second, as we just saw in the pandemic, people have realized, ‘oh wait, it’s a great place to live.’ People are moving here in droves. And that’s creating all kinds of issues in communities with housing prices going through the roof, but it’s also creating a responsibility for us with increased recreation on the lands we manage. And so we have our work cut out for us. Over 80 million people visited BLM lands last year. That quickly snowballs into something that’s out of our control. 

WF: The BLM’s Rock Springs Field Office has long been expected to release revisions to its Resource Management Plan, which covers the Red Desert. Do you have any update on where this process is?

TSM: They are not going to have to wait past this administration. I’ve talked to the folks in the Rock Springs Field Office. I made a commitment to them that we are going to get this thing out the door.

Encompassing over 100,000 acres, the Killpecker Sand Dunes in the Red Desert is one of the largest sand dune areas in the world. Boar’s Tusk, the remains of a volcano, can be seen in the distance. (Bob Wick, BLM/FlickrCC)

WF: Western Watersheds Project says the BLM has been skipping environmental reviews on grazing permit renewals for years, leading to the degradation of millions of acres of public lands. Can you speak to that claim or anything the BLM is doing to address it?

TSM: Congress did pass legislation that enabled people to get extensions on their permits without doing NEPA. And it’s not OK. It’s just not OK that some producers out there are working on 20-year-old permits. Because they know that their permit no longer suits the conditions on the ground, right? So I am hoping that the grazing rule updates that we’re hoping to get across the finish line will build the flexibility into the role that they need, and the landscape needs and that we need to help us get out of this landscape health issue.

WF: Should BLM corner-crossing guidelines be revised in light of the not guilty verdict in the Carbon County case?

TSM: What’s interesting to me about corner crossing is the deeply held values that underlie it. And I’m really interested, in light of this case, in digging in and taking a deeper look. I know the agency has had different opinions across the decades about this issue. And the last opinion that we had was issued in 1997.

WF: A large wild horse roundup took place in southern Wyoming in 2021. The BLM this month announced fertility control efforts. Can you tell me about the strategy for finding solutions for managing the health of herds and public lands in what many would say is an intractable problem?

TSM: At times it feels intractable, in part because it’s a species on the landscape that didn’t evolve with the landscape and therefore doesn’t have a natural predator. And so unless we manage them, unless we pull some horses off the landscape, or figure out very quickly long-term fertility control, the populations double every four years. And that is untenable. It’s untenable for the horses, it’s untenable for the landscape, it’s untenable for wildlife. 

Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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    1. Horses are a species on the landscape that didn’t evolve with the landscape and therefore doesn’t have a natural predator? We have known for a long time now that horses are native to the Americas! That whole paragraph was complete nonsense. No natural predators? Only because they were allowed to be wiped out, which is reversible. Too many horses, but when they are removed they are replaced by way more sheep and cattle. Honest my foot.

  1. the way I see it, you have got to find a place for all, Emigrant, you brought into our good country, A Sad day for the Brave and the Free.

  2. In order to provide access to landlocked Public Lands there are three options. Declare Eminent Domain, offer land swaps or pay compensation for public access easements across private property. The first option will be heavily litigated, the second will be extremely difficult in most checkerboard areas and third will be very costly.
    Pick your poison….

  3. Wow, and Republicans did everything they could to try to stop her from heading BLM! She says in regard to sage grouse that she will talk with “governor’s offices & state fish & game departments and good smart people who know what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing okay–they’re ignoring the evidence on sage grouse! She says “Wyoming has helped lead the way on sage-grouse conservation”–This could have been written by David Bernhardt or Ryan Zinke! The energy industry & slob hunters have intimidated her & Biden’s Interior so much that nothing’s going to change.

    1. Sadly, I agree with you. Sage grouse should have been listed as threatened via the Endangered Species Act when Obama was president. Nothing has changed.

      I retired and moved to Montana in 2006 where I became familiar with the BLM. It didn’t take me long to realize that a lot of the BLM employees are owned by the ranchers.

      1. Apparently the whole federal government is owned by cattlemen. Not one word about the extreme cost to taxpayers and wild life for this welfare grazing program.

  4. Ranchers should have total control of public lands because thye “lease” it. The rancher puts down huge money – 4.5 cents per day rent for a cow/calf pair. Yes, FOUR and a HALF cents~! Normally, a tract of land is open to grazing for 5 months, so that totals an enormous payment to the public landowner (BLM) of $6.75 for the cow/calf pair…plus, during the no-graze season of 7 months, the rancher controls the acess to the public land, has the right to keep the public off and is free to outfit the game on the public lands for fun and profit. If it wasn’t for the rancher’s paying 4.5 Cents per day per cow/calf “rent” ($1.35 of month) then the federal govt. would collapse. Let’s not take into consideration that the BLM’s cost of administrating the grazing program is $8.00 per month per cow/calf. That’s a deficit of negative $6.65….PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE GREEN CURTAIN

  5. Great news. Its about time that we looked at our Public Lands as something other than simply a means for producing commodities and livestock. Consolidation of scattered parcels and opening up access to existing Public Lands would be huge for the future of balanced and responsible management.

  6. I will be interested to see how the review of grazing permits goes. Her comments on wild horse management are the same boiler plate comments we’ve heard for years yet nothing changes. There is a cooperative fertility team in place for the Red Desert for several years now that still hasn’t been activated and when I tried to simply get a meeting going on fertility control in Rock Springs in 2016 I was told to “find another state.” So when? The cycle of gathering then ship to holding tens of thousands of horses with an adoption rate of maybe 7,000 a year is not sustainable and the ill thought out Adoption Incentive Plan has backfired leaving horses dropped at sale barns after $ has been received. The whole 1972 WH&B Act needs a major overhaul.

    As far as opening up more public land… the damage to public lands is at an all time high. Should we, really, allow that damage to spread into yet more habitat? Is wilderness just a big human playground? Oh. Right. Recreation is big business. But as we’ve seen, it does not equate to conservation. Wilderness (with a small w) is my church. Not just an another amusement park.

    1. Most outdoorsmen are the best conservationists there are . It would be a great thing to let the sportsmen be the watchdogs.

      1. Like we are letting gun owners be the watchdogs? No thanks. One rotten apple spoils the barrel, as we continue to see.

  7. “What’s interesting to me about corner crossing is the deeply held values that underlie it. And I’m really interested, in light of this case, in digging in and taking a deeper look. I know the agency has had different opinions across the decades about this issue. And the last opinion that we had was issued in 1997.”

    A BLM memo from 1997 says the department does not consider corner crossing to be legal public access.

    I am just going to riff here but one good place to start would be prohibiting access to land-locked public lands by those who prohibit public access to those lands. The other thing we should do is agree to not enforce trespass laws for corner crossers unless the landowner provides reasonable access at some location. Tax laws can also be used to incentivize access. Property has a greater value with exclusive access to public land, or just the viewshed. That value should be recognized and owners should pay a much higher property tax rate for that value. We should encourage purchasing access rights either through eminent domain, easements. or simple property sales.

    There are always exceptions that need to be considered on a case-by-case basis but in the case before us today with the hunters, private property rights were not abused in any meaningful way. No mental or physical harm was done, no privacy invaded, no damage to property, none touched his land. It was just a rich guy wanting to keep the public off public land to enrich himself.

    Maybe the feds should clear landing zones for private aircraft in the land-locked parcels. Allow heli-access for hunting on these lands as we do with skiers. Perhaps with a delay to hunt after landing.

    In the end, it seems highly unlikely that corner crossing will be seen as legal under all circumstances. Wyoming electeds can screw the public and limit access or show some creative thinking and expand access.

    1. BLM’s interpretation of Corner Crossing is not legal access, i.e. it is not a legal easement or right-of-way, however, that is not to mean that corner crossing is illegal.

  8. This is the first time in my 55 years of recreating on public land that anyone in a BLM office said anything close to this much less acting on it. We have several areas in Wyoming being public parcels yet surrounded by private land sometimes only a few yards or feet keeping us off several thousand acres of public land.

  9. Tree spike anyone?

    Government intervention and regulation are not “market forces.” When government officials use terms like that it is obvious they lack understanding of how economics work. Government regulation and manipulation are at the forefront of the green energy push, not market forces. So let’s be honest and acknowledge truly what is going on. While I believe solar and wind play a role in our energy mix and support transitioning to alternative sources, let’s also be prepared for the the negative impacts on the environment these so called energy sources bring to the table. The impact on birds and raptors, the disposal of equipment at the end of their useful lives, the impact on the environment from rare earth minerals. An honest and open discussion will lead to the development of greener energy sources, not government mandates from people with political agendas. And do not ignore the inability for these so called green sources to meet all the demands for energy we want.

  10. Stone-Manning said, in part…”our job is to make sure these lands down to future generations are in better shape than we found them.”

    A good start would be to cancel all BLM grazing leases that do not meet the range land health standards and fencing off riparian and similar areas needed by sage grouse and numerous other species.

    I’m skeptical, BLM saying the right words and phases but will they implement meaningful actions on our public lands? Time will tell but I’m not holding my breath.