No one should be surprised by the revelation that the Interior Department wasn’t interested in hearing arguments against shrinking national monuments last year. It’s not even much of a surprise that the evidence of that skewed analysis apparently came to light through a mistake by the department’s Freedom of Information Act office. This administration repeatedly has demonstrated it has a hard time shooting straight.
The Washington Post reported Monday that senior Interior Department officials dismissed evidence that monuments under review boosted tourism and spurred archaeological discoveries, instead emphasizing the value of logging, ranching and energy development that would be permitted if the monuments were revoked or downsized. President Donald Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review 27 national monuments, including the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.
The president dramatically reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in Utah, but has taken no action on the Cascade-Siskiyou, which was created by President Bill Clinton and enlarged by President Barack Obama. Timber interests opposed the expansion, arguing that it includes former Oregon & California Railroad lands designed by Congress for sustainable timber harvest.
The documents released July 16 show Interior officials rejected material that supported keeping monuments intact in favor of evidence that suggested protections should be dismantled.
The day after the documents were released, the FOIA office removed the documents online and said they were inadvertently posted, asking anyone who had downloaded the files to delete them.
Regardless of whether some parts of the documents may have been exempt from disclosure, an exemption does not forbid an agency from releasing the information anyway, or bar the public or news agencies from keeping and publicizing the documents once they’ve been released.
It’s easy to see why the department wanted to take back the first release, because the redacted versions subsequently made public reveal what officials wanted to hide. For example, the redacted portions showed that an official recommended deleting language from the review of a marine monument that said commercial fishing vessels received only 5 percent of their annual landings from within the monument because that undercut the argument that monument protections harmed fishing.
In the case of the Cascade-Siskiyou, the subsequent release redacted a statement from an acting deputy director that “previous timber sale planning and development can be immediately resumed” if the monument expansion was revoked.
Public records law allows exemptions for internal communications that are part of a deliberative process before a decision is made. But in this case, it appears the deliberation — the review — was deliberately slanted to justify a particular outcome.