What Will the New Secretary of Interior Mean for Climbing and Conservation?

Last week, David Bernhardt was confirmed as Secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI), the agency that manages 500 million acres of public land in the United States and oversees the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. About 30% of America’s climbing areas are located on DOI lands, including iconic climbing areas like Yosemite, New River Gorge, Joshua Tree, Red Rock, and Indian Creek.

So, what can we expect from Bernhardt on recreation and public lands conservation?

As Deputy Secretary under Ryan Zinke, who resigned the post four months ago, Bernhardt has a track record of supporting outdoor recreation. In April 2018, he contributed to Secretarial Order 3366, which seeks to enhance and expand recreation opportunities on DOI land and waters. This order also resulted in the creation of a new Senior Recreation Adviser position within DOI—a positive indication that the agency recognizes the value of outdoor recreation. Rick May was chosen to fill this new position, and Access Fund has worked with him productively on recent climbing access issues. This record leaves us cautiously optimistic that Bernhardt and his staff support outdoor recreation, and we’re hopeful for a productive partnership that improves climbing management.

Last month, as acting Secretary, Bernhardt signed Secretarial Order 3373, which directs the BLM to formally consider the impacts to recreation before disposing of or exchanging any BLM land. On face value, this order is beneficial because it requires the BLM to consider recreation access when selling off federal lands. However, we’re generally not in favor of disposing of federal lands to begin with, and this order sets the stage for federal land disposal and transfer.

Despite some positive policies for recreation, Bernhardt’s record on conservation is concerning. Prior to joining the DOI, he worked as an attorney and lobbyist for clients in the mining, oil, and extractive industries. While Bernhardt served as Deputy Secretary, the DOI increased the amount of public lands open to oil and gas leasing by about 75% and mounted a review of America’s National Monuments that resulted in the drastic reduction of Bears Ears National Monument. During Bernhardt’s tenure as acting Secretary, he proposed changes to implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that would make it much harder for Americans to get basic information from the government, limiting transparency on the management and conservation of our shared public lands.

Department of Interior sources also recently informed Access Fund that Bernhardt will generally not allow the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management to accept new land donations to improve and expand our public lands system. Access Fund currently holds property (the Homestead climbing area in Arizona, for example) that could potentially be transferred to the federal government and managed in perpetuity for the benefit of climbers. This may no longer be an option with Bernhardt as head of the DOI.

Bernhardt’s confirmation was contentious, passing by a thin 56-41 margin. Just prior to the vote, 55 members of Congress sent Bernhardt a letter seeking clarity on his decision to "systemically limit public input" on proposals to open more public lands for oil and gas leasing. Senator Wyden (D-OR) has been openly critical of Bernhardt's close relationship with the oil and gas industry and has asked for an ethics investigation on accusations that he lobbied for the oil and gas industry while serving as former Secretary Zinke’s deputy secretary. However, many congressional members appreciate Bernhardt’s unarguable experience at DOI, and several Senate Democrats did vote to confirm Bernhardt, most notably Senator Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and Senator Heinrich (D-NM), who is a longstanding conservationist and strong supporter of America’s public lands.

We expect that Bernhardt will continue to support President Trump’s energy dominance mandate, which prioritizes energy development above other public land values, but he has also displayed a measurable interest in enhancing recreation opportunities. Regardless, Access Fund will continue to work with Department of Interior to improve climbing experiences and strongly advocate for the conservation of America’s public lands.

Photo: © Tami Heilemann, Interior

Stay Informed

Sign up for Policy Digest and get the latest news that impacts climbing on public lands.