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WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2019 – The Center for Biological Diversity and other groups today urged the U.S. Department of the Interior to withdraw proposed rule changes that would hinder public access to records on agency actions that hurt wildlife and public lands.
The Interior Department’s proposed rule would illegally give agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broad discretion to reject records requests made through the Freedom of Information Act, today’s comment letter notes. The changes were proposed shortly before embattled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke left office.
“This would pull a dark cloak over the whole Interior Department and let the Trump administration hide actions that harm endangered animals,” said Meg Townsend, the Center’s open government attorney. “The revisions are an insult to transparency, adding more bureaucracy to Interior’s already severely backlogged public-records program. If they’re finalized, our wildlife and public lands will suffer in secret.”
The rule would require that requests specifically describe the particular records being sought and the relevant agency action implicated. This change, supposedly aimed at relieving the department of what it calls “unreasonably burdensome” searches, would actually make it almost impossible to obtain many important public records.
The rule would also make it easier for the agency to deny fee-waiver requests and deny requests to expedite releases of records about breaking news stories and matters of significant interest to the public.
The Interior Department’s proposed rule would nullify the records expertise of FOIA-focused agency staff. It would also undermine the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act by consolidating crucial decision-making into the hands of a political appointee, the solicitor of the Interior. That position is now held by Dan Jorjani, a former Koch Foundation strategist who has served as acting solicitor for the past two years.
The proposed revisions would apply to all agencies within the Department of the Interior, including the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Jorjani signed the proposed rule Dec. 28, the Friday between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, amid a government shutdown.
“Interior’s proposed rule changes would give a single political appointee unbridled power to deny access to crucial information about government activities,” Townsend said. “This is part of a disturbing pattern of recent efforts to allow the agency to operate in the shadows. The Trump administration is desperate to conceal how it serves special interests at the expense of America’s natural heritage.”
Comments are due today, Jan. 29, 2019. The Center has signed on to a letter requesting a 120-day extension of the comment period. The Interior Department instead extended it by just one day.