Interior Department Quietly Proposes New Rules to Deny Public Access to Documents

  Management Decisions and Projects on Local Public Lands Could Be Conducted Behind Closed Doors; Comments Accepted Until January 25

Washington D.C. –The Trump administration has submitted a proposal to significantly limit the amount of information available to the media and to the public about national parks, national monuments, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. During the holidays and amidst the government shutdown, the Department of the Interior announced changes in how it processes public requests through the Freedom of Information Act (commonly called FOIA) — a bedrock law passed in 1966 that ensures government transparency and public access to agency records.

A public comment period on the proposal closes on January 25.

Earlier this week, 92 organizations from around the country (including Los Padres ForestWatch) requested that the Interior Department extend the comment deadline due to the broad scope of the changes and the ongoing government shutdown.

Media outlets, individuals, and thousands of organizations across the country — including ForestWatch — have used FOIA to access important documents from the Department, which manages 500 million acres of public land throughout the country, including Channel Islands National Park, Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Carrizo Plain National Monument, Point Sal, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the California Costal National Monument, which stretches the entire coast of the state. Prompt and open access to Department documents helps the public understand how public lands are managed, how wildlife is protected, and what impacts activities like oil drilling and mining will have on public health and the environment.

The proposed changes would also limit media and public access to agencies within the Department like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The changes would make it more difficult for the public to understand how decisions are made about which species deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act, how much critical habitat is protected, and what steps are needed to bring imperiled plants and animals back from the brink of extinction.

The proposed changes — published in the December 28 Federal Registerwould limit the number of FOIA requests the Department of the Interior processes each month, and would allow the Department to reject any requests deemed “unreasonably burdensome” or which require “inspection of a vast quantity of material.” The lack of specificity in these terms would allow agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and others housed in the Interior Department to easily deny virtually any requests for public records.

The number of FOIA lawsuits filed against the Department of the Interior has steeply increased since Trump took office. Graph courtesy of foiaproject.org.

The proposal comes while multiple ethics investigations are underway involving top Interior Department officials. The number of FOIA lawsuits across all federal agencies are at an all-time high, up 67% compared to the last full fiscal year under the Obama administration. The spike in litigation can be attributed to an increase in the Department’s denial of FOIA requests and missed deadlines, the enactment of controversial policies like shrinking the size of national monuments, as well as an escalation in oil drilling on public lands. The proposed changes would likely make FOIA backlogs and litigation even worse.

Early last year, ForestWatch filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department for withholding records related to the administration’s 2017 review of the Carrizo Plain National Monument and other national monuments. Under the proposed rule changes, such a request would likely be denied outright by the Department. The proposed changes would also affect the public’s ability to obtain information about other public lands in our region, including scattered parcels of Bureau of Land Management lands where drilling and fracking is proposed.

“The Freedom of Information Act was critical in the public’s engagement on the BLM’s recent proposal to open over 1 million acres across the Central Coast to oil drilling and fracking,” said ForestWatch Public Lands Advocate Rebecca August. “It is through FOIA that we were able to identify the properties, schools, and parks that were impacted. After we released that data, the BLM received thousands of comments.”

Ironically, federal agencies are currently not responding to any FOIA requests during the government shutdown. Most FOIA staff have been furloughed, and the offices that process FOIA requests are empty.

“Simply put, the Interior Department’s proposed changes will keep the public in the dark about this administration’s devious attempts to roll back protections for our public lands,” said ForestWatch Conservation Director Bryant Baker. “This move is a clear impingement on a cornerstone of democracy and government transparency that has been on the books for more than half a century.”

To make a comment, visit the Department of the Interior’s webpage at regulations.gov, or go to LPFW.org/FOIA-action. The Department will accept public comments on the proposed changes through January 28. For more information, go to LPFW.org/FOIA.

Protecting the Los Padres National Forest, the Carrizo Plain National Monument, and other public lands along California’s Central Coast. Join us today at LPFW.org 


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