DOI Attempts to Reduce Government Transparency, Access Fund Pushes Back

02/11/2019

On December 28th, the Department of Interior (DOI) proposed new regulations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that would make it much harder for Americans to get basic information from the government—and Access Fund and our partners at Outdoor Alliance are pushing back.


Access Fund relies on FOIA to investigate government actions that lack transparency, such as the National Park Service's decision to remove rappel anchors and ban bolts without opportunity for public comment in North Cascades National Park. Photo courtesy of © Jason Keith

The DOI oversees the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, which oversee many of our most iconic climbing destinations. As a government agency, DOI must comply with FOIA, the critical law that allows the public to investigate and understand our federal government’s actions and decisions. Access Fund uses FOIA to request records from land management agencies in order to evaluate decisions that affect our public climbing areas and develop well-informed advocacy strategies. FOIA is vital to the functioning of a democratic society and critical to Access Fund’s work to protect public lands.

The American public has been flooding the DOI with FOIA requests in concerned attempts to understand recent controversial decisions around management of our public lands. For example, DOI attracted many FOIA requests after it reduced Bears Ears National Monument, ignoring nearly 3 million public comments (the vast majority of which opposed the reduction) to align with energy industry interests. More recently, the public is attempting to understand why DOI decided to continue processing oil and gas lease applications during a government shutdown, while land conservation and protection initiatives were sidelined. On the local level, Access Fund has a pending FOIA request regarding climbing access at Haleakala National Park in Hawaii.

The DOI simply can’t keep up with the flood of inquiries and litigation regarding the current administration’s decisions for the management of public lands. In response, the agency is throwing up its hands and telling the American public that it can’t address all of the concerns, so it will instead try to limit the public’s ability to obtain information. The DOI also set the comment period on this proposed revision to FOIA implementation during the 35-day government shutdown, taking advantage of the fact that Americans were more focused on opening the government than submitting comments on a proposed DOI policy change.

The transparency and accountability ensured by FOIA are bedrock principles of our democratic institutions, ensuring that the public knows what the government is up to. The DOI needs to take a step back and reflect on why the department is attracting an increase in FOIA record requests instead of expending the department’s limited bandwidth to revise FOIA implementation guidelines, which would leave the American public in the dark.

Reducing government transparency interferes with our collective efforts to protect climbing access and conserve the environment. With so much at stake, now more than ever, we need better access to the government information. Access Fund is working with our partners at Outdoor Alliance to push back on these proposed limitations to FOIA. We have detailed the concerns of the climbing and outdoor recreation communities in a letter to DOI and are monitoring this issue closely. Chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee, Raul Grijalva, also pushed back. Access Fund’s policy team is meeting with Grijalva’s office next week to strategize how best to fight the administration’s attempts to silence our voice on public lands management.

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