As a partial government shutdown takes a growing toll on national parks and other public lands, environmental advocates are concerned that public records relating to the shutdown’s impacts may be harder to access once it ends. Before Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke departed the agency under a cloud of ethics investigations, he transferred public records requests to a political operative and introduced a proposal to limit new requests in the future.
As the shutdown nears the end of its second week, many departments and agencies have seen much of their staff furloughed, temporarily shuttering or diminishing critical programs and efforts across the country. That’s been especially noticeable at national parks and monuments.
“It’s stunning to us,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director with the Center for Western Priorities, told ThinkProgress. Prentice-Dunn referred to national parks as the country’s “crown jewels” but said the shutdown has resulted in parks going largely without the round-the-clock staffing and maintenance they require.
In the 12 days since the government shut down over President Donald Trump’s demands for border wall funding, the condition of many national parks have quickly spiraled into a source of extreme concern. Historically, such spaces have been closed when the government runs out of funding. But the current National Parks Service (NPS) shutdown contingency plan has largely worked to keep parks open where possible, but without sufficient staff or services like bathrooms. Several organizations told ThinkProgress that move seems designed to avoid public backlash over closures, as was seen during the 2013 shutdown.
That means certain parks are theoretically open, but operating with minimal oversight. Piles of mounting garbage, human feces, and general disregard for wildlife and sensitive ecosystems have all been reported in the days since the shutdown. At many parks, visitors have disregarded advisories about where to drive, in addition to letting dogs run near areas where bears and other animals make their homes.
NPS directed ThinkProgress to its shutdown plan on Wednesday and indicated that concerns over health and safety could spur further closures but did not indicate if any are currently planned. Private contractors have been working to assist with trash removal and other services but organizations working on public lands protection have expressed concern about possible severe damage to the areas in question.
“We’ll be interested to look back after it’s done and see if there are any public records [pertaining to the damage],” said Prentice-Dunn, who did not elaborate on the types of records his organization might seek.
Assessing that damage, however, could be made harder by new policies within the Interior Department. During the shutdown, the department filed a rule targeting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which have become a source of contention between the Trump administration and the public. Proposed changes by the department would loosen timelines for the requests and give the agency more time to respond, in addition to increasing the burden on filers to be more detailed and specific in their asks.
“The bureau will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material,” the proposal states.
Last month, Zinke shifted FOIA requests to Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Jorjani, a former adviser to the conservative Koch brothers. That move came amid a sharp uptick in FOIA requests at the Interior Department, many pertaining to Zinke’s own suspected ethics violations.
In light of both that decision and the shutdown’s ongoing toll on public spaces, the new FOIA proposal is disconcerting to some advocates. Prentice-Dunn expressed concerns that information about the shutdown’s impact on areas like Utah’s Grand-Staircase Escalante could go unanswered despite FOIA requests.
Another issue at hand is the proposal’s comment period, or the length of time during which government proposals typically receive feedback from the general public. Several organizations indicated to ThinkProgress that they were unaware if the period would be extended in light of the shutdown. Those periods are often the only opportunity the public has to express criticism or concern about proposed federal rules.
“They only gave 30 days,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director for the organization Protecting Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Ruch told ThinkProgress he was unsure how the FOIA proposal had “escaped the shutdown paralysis” but that if the comment period is not extended, the public will only have until the end of January to respond. Making matters more complicated are furloughs spread across departments and agencies, including the Interior Department, leaving the public without transparent communication or updates.
Zinke has officially departed the Interior Department, but Prentice-Dunn indicated he expects the FOIA proposal to receive support from David Bernhardt, who is taking over as acting secretary.
“[He] will make it that much more difficult,” Prentice-Dunn said, describing the department as more and more of a “black box” thanks to decreasing transparency. Either way, he emphasized, organizations and public watchdogs will be monitoring any failure to extend the public comment period on the FOIA proposal, especially in light of the shutdown.
“It would be unconscionable to me [not to extend it],” he said. “To have a government shutdown, then say ‘you snooze, you lose.’ But, with this administration, who knows.”