More than 130 groups and organizations have submitted public comments opposing the Interior Department’s efforts to crack down on public information requests — a suppression that opponents say will make it much harder to hold the government accountable on a number of issues including impacts from the partial government shutdown.
Local, regional, and national organizations including the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), the Wilderness Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club are among those who submitted comments on Tuesday panning the Interior Department’s plans to reign in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They were joined by organizations representing the media, including the Society for Environmental Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
More than 9,000 submissions commenting on the proposed rule change have seemingly come just as the comment period winds to a close without an extension, despite the shutdown. While people could submit comments, they were not visible during the shutdown and the rule was not widely advertised by the department.
The proposal to limit FOIA requests was introduced in late December by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke just prior to his departure at the end of the year. As part of the change, requests would be transferred to Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Jorjani, a former advisor to the mega-donor conservative Koch brothers. Interior career staff previously oversaw the requests, while Jorjani is a political appointee.
Under the proposed changes, the department would also loosen the timeline for responding to FOIA requests. Federal FOIA rules state that the government must respond within 20 days to requests, and while that time period often drags on far past that limit, Interior’s proposed change would mean an even longer waiting time for those seeking information of concern to the public.
FOIA requests would also need to be much more detailed according to the new rules, and among other caveats, Interior “will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search.”
The proposal dropped during the first days of the record-breaking shutdown, even as hundreds of thousands of workers were furloughed or working without pay.
That left opponents largely unable to gain more information about the rule, even as environmental advocates told ThinkProgress they worried the new rules could impact their ability to assess the damage done by the shutdown.
“It’s never a good idea to scrap the rules that let the public know what the government is up to, but this could be the worst time in our history,” Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with SELC, told ThinkProgress via email of the proposal’s timing.
The proposal comes amid a large uptick in FOIA requests as journalists, climate advocates, and others work to gain information about the Trump administration’s large-scale environmental rollbacks and efforts targeting public lands. Comments submitted by environmental organizations on Tuesday in response to the proposal also highlight Interior’s decision to drop the proposal during the shutdown, potentially limiting responses from the public.
“It is likely that many members of the public would assume that, due to the shutdown, most government functions are unavailable, including the initiation and implementation of a public comment period,” read a copy of the comments collectively submitted by environmental organizations to the government and shared with ThinkProgress.
The organizations moreover note that “many members of the public who would otherwise be interested in this process” have largely been left in the dark about the rule and are unaware of the comment period’s January 29, 2019 deadline. At least 9,340 comments on the proposal seem to have been submitted so far, many expressing concern about the revisions. Yet, for many, worry remains that the public has simply not been given enough time to respond.
Advocates for public lands and environmental justice are already concerned that limitations on FOIA requests could hinder their ability to access post-shutdown information. Organizations including PEER and the Center for Western Priorities told ThinkProgress during the shutdown that they worried the FOIA changes could make it more challenging to ascertain damage done to national parks. In a shift from prior government shutdowns, many public spaces remained open, which allowed for an uptick in vandalism and extreme damage at parks like Joshua Tree in southern California.
The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has also expressed concerns. Executive Director Meaghan Parker sent a letter on Tuesday arguing that the revisions would “make it harder for journalists and the public to obtain documents and information” pertaining to issues overseen by the department. (Disclosure: the author of this piece is a member of SEJ.)
Interior isn’t the only department targeting FOIA requests under the Trump administration. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also been accused of delaying record requests, especially those from environmental groups and any requests seen as “political.”
Now that the shutdown is over, the public is seeking answers. Looking into the extent of the damage done at the parks, for instance, has been a top priority for organizations scrambling to take stock of the shutdown’s impacts. And for many, the FOIA proposal adds insult to injury.
“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, who leads SELC’s National Forests and Parks program. “This is just another way this administration is trying to cut the public out of decisions affecting their public lands.”
Lawmakers are adding to the furor. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, for instance, has slammed the proposed changes.
In a letter to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt sent January 23, Grijalva said that the revisions would “undermine government transparency” and “impose more burdens” on Americans seeking information. The representative also noted the proposal’s timing and called for an additional 120 days from the end of the shutdown for the public to offer comments on the proposal.
Last week, however, the Interior Department announced that it would extend the comment period by only one day, from January 28 to January 29, after more than 150 organizations requested an extension. The department said the 24-hour extension was to “ensure interested parties have the full 30 days to submit their responses.” Without a second extension, the comment period ends at midnight on Wednesday.