When it comes to transparency and government openness, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s department is failing miserably. In the last year, the Western Values Project (WVP) has filed 64 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Interior Department. To date, they have only filled 8% of those requests without facing legal action, a responsibility they are required by law to complete.
The requests that have been filled haven’t come easy. We have taken the Interior Department to court six times to force the release of information. And when they do hand over documents, they take their time. It took the department 63 days (!) to provide something as simple as the nine names on the Executive Resource Board. Some other examples of absurd timelines include:
Some outstanding requests Secretary Zinke’s Interior Department has failed to fill include:
Why is the response rate so low? Are appointed Interior officials deliberately hiding information? We would file a FOIA to find out, but it could take some time to get an answer. If Secretary Zinke was committed to transparency, it wouldn’t take the department weeks, if not months, to hand over documents.
After audio from a closed-door meeting was leaked, the Washington Post reported that the Bureau of Land Management complained about the number of FOIAs that have been filed. The report failed to mention their dismally poor response rate. WVP has filed a FOIA requesting a copy of the recorded closed-door meeting held without public notice. We are not holding our breath that we will see it anytime soon.
It’s troubling that the department clearly has no interest in basic transparency when it comes to its decision-making process. Given the monumental decisions that are being made, like throwing out nearly a decade of collaborative work on the state-based sage-grouse plans, and clawing back millions of acres of protected lands, transparency and public accountability is paramount.
After his nomination, Zinke said that “his ‘No. 1 job is to restore trust’ between Americans and the federal agencies that manage land and water across the West.” His boss, President Trump, proclaimed that his administration would be “an ethical and transparent government.” Both statements couldn’t have been further from the truth, as the public has been kept in the dark on important decisions impacting public lands and parks.
In the era of fake news, Russian bots and rampant misinformation, along with the administration’s unchecked regulatory rollback, the need for transparency and an open public process is more important than ever.