Tuesday, August 14 , 2018, 11:03 pm | Fair 72º

 
 
 
 

ForestWatch Sues Trump Administration for Failing to Provide Public Records

Los Padres ForestWatch has filed suit against the Department of the Interior after the nonprofit organization tried and failed to gain access to public documents related to the federal agency’s review of the Carrizo Plain National Monument last summer.

In April, the Trump administration announced a review of 27 national monuments throughout the country to determine whether to reduce their size or eliminate their protected status.

The list included the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo and Kern counties, a protected area of native grassland and mountains more than 200,000 acres in size.

The national monument is home to 13 federally endangered species such as the San Joaquin kit fox and the California jewelflower, and is known for its spectacular wildflower displays.

The review — conducted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — was shrouded in secrecy over the summer despite the nearly 3 million Americans who commented in favor of keeping protections for national monuments.

Missing an August deadline for issuing the final report for the review, Zinke finally released a report with limited information in December, including the administration’s plans to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

The report did not contain information specific to the Carrizo Plain.

In August, ForestWatch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Interior Department in an effort to obtain documents related to the review of the Carrizo Plain National Monument:

ForestWatch seeks reports on why Carrizo Plain National Monument was selected to be reviewed; agency communications on the future of the national monument; and public comments referencing the Carrizo Plain.

The agency responded to the FOIA request within the requisite time period, but officials did not indicate whether they would comply with the request.

After numerous status requests were sent to the agency over six months, ForestWatch still was not told if or when the FOIA request would be fulfilled.

That left the nonprofit conservation organization no option but to bring the matter before an independent judge.

The FOIA requires agencies to respond to requests for public records within 20 working days of receipt, and allows an additional 10-day extension for special circumstances.

The ForestWatch request has been lingering with the agency for more than six months.

“Interior Secretary Zinke tried to justify his national monument review last year by claiming that the process would increase transparency into how our nation’s treasured landscapes are protected and managed,” said Bryant Baker, conservation director at ForestWatch.

“The real reason for the review was to open up public lands to development, and now Secretary Zinke will not even release simple documents to help the public understand how and why the review was conducted in the first place," Baker said.

"What does he have to hide?” Baker said.

A study released earlier this year showed 68 FOIA lawsuits pending against Zinke’s Department of the Interior, the third highest of any federal agency, and a 26 percent increase over the previous year.

This is part of a greater pattern of the Trump administration failing to comply with FOIA.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this week where a group of bipartisan legislators expressed concerns about the lack of transparency under the Trump administration and the rising tide of lawsuits agencies are facing for failing to adequately respond to public record requests under FOIA.

The case — Los Padres ForestWatch v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior — was filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The agency has 30 days to respond to the ForestWatch lawsuit.

ForestWatch is a local nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization working to protect and restore wild places, wildlife and watersheds in Los Padres National Forest, the Carrizo Plain National Monument, and other public lands on the Central Coast.

For more, visit www.LPFW.org.

— Bryant Baker for Los Padres ForestWatch.

 

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