Department of Interior launches stealth attack on transparency

SELC leads broad coalition to fight back

Among its broad responsibilities, the Department of the Interior oversees the National Park Service, which manages places like Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (© Bill Lea)

On December 28 — in the holiday week between Christmas and New Year’s and in the midst of a government shutdown — the Department of the Interior submitted a proposal to weaken its response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Today SELC led a coalition effort of 146 groups to submit comments in opposition to the proposal.

There are myriad issues with the proposal — from process issues with how and when it was introduced, to its substance, which would dramatically reduce public oversight of the agency charged with managing federal lands and wildlife.

Under the proposed rule, the agency’s solicitor – a political appointee — would be granted broad authority to deny requests deemed “burdensome” or “vague.” These terms that are not defined – meaning the agency would have enormous discretion to simply deny requests it didn’t want to answer, which goes against the law.  

The strict “time limits” enshrined in federal open records regulations would become merely “time frames,” allowing Interior to sit on requests for records until they are no longer useful. Other requests could be disregarded simply because they had been inadvertently addressed to the wrong section of the agency. 

In comments opposing the rule, SELC attorneys noted that the changes would take experienced agency employees out of the loop and would add layers of bureaucracy that would increase rather than decrease efficiency in addition to prompting lawsuits due to the illegal provisions.  

This proposal is merely the latest in an ongoing attempt by Interior to withhold documents that should be public — the kind of documents that exposed, among other things, the rampant corruption in the administration of former Secretary Ryan Zinke. This proposed rule was submitted on his last day in office.

It’s never a good idea scrap the rules that let the public know what the government is up to, but this could be the worst time in our history,” said Kym Hunter, Senior Attorney with SELC. “This attempt by Trump’s Department of Interior to shroud itself in secrecy and keep documents from the public makes clear what we have known for a long time — its interests lie in protecting polluters and resource extractors, not the special places, endangered species, and natural resources that Americans have entrusted to its care. It’s no surprise that so many groups from all across the country have signed onto comments opposing this latest outrage.”

The Trump administration’s hostility to environmental protection and regulatory safeguards against industry overreach are well known. But these attitudes could do much more harm if the administration can keep its actions secret.

We’re not always going to agree about what happens on public lands or the best ways to protect wildlife, but those decisions should be made in the light of day,” said Sam Evans, SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program Leader. “This is just another way this administration is trying to cut the public out of decisions affecting their public lands.”

SELC submitted comments on behalf of, among others, the Wilderness Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund National Wildlife Federation, Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Urban Environmental Reform, and the Sierra Club.

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