While we keep watching the circus playing out before our eyes, the clown with the funny hair and weird makeup who keeps tweeting mindless inanities, things are happening in our government. Things that will have an effect on our health, our freedom of press, our very lives.
We may wake up some morning and find that any number of things have changed overnight. For instance, we might wake up and find that our national parks and wildlife refuges no longer exist as such, for they have been sold to ExxonMobile for drilling rights, or dispersed to various coal companies for mining rights. Or we might waken to the news that an entire Indian nation has been forced to leave their land for lack of water.Why, you ask? In late December, amid the government shutdown, the U.S. Department of Interior, currently under the direction of Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, proposed changes that would make it harder for the public and media to obtain records of agency dealings. According to The Guardian (you don’t find these things in U.S. news) …
“Among other wide-ranging revisions to its Foia [Freedom of Information Act] regulations, the interior department’s proposal would enable the agency to reject Foia requests that it considers “unreasonably burdensome” or too large, and it would allow the agency to impose limits on the amount of records it processes for individual requesters each month.
The department oversees hundreds of millions of acres of public land, including national parks, as well as the country’s endangered species programs. Under the Trump administration, the department has embarked on an aggressive agenda of opening these lands to oil and gas drilling and mining while rolling back a wide variety of environmental regulations.
Records uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act in recent months have revealed the department’s close ties with energy industry groups as well as several apparent ethics violations among top political officials.
Daniel Jorjani, one of interior’s top lawyers and a former employee of the Koch-brother-backed conservative group Freedom Partners, signed off on the proposed revisions, which are facing harsh criticism from civil society groups that rely on Foia to track the department’s actions.
The changes are part of a broader drive to limit public access to interior department records. In October, the Guardian reported on a leaked interior department guidance that directed US Fish and Wildlife Service employees around the country to take a less transparent approach when responding to Foia requests about the agency’s endangered species programs.”
The proposal was made by Ryan Zinke before his contentious departure, and the announcement was made on Friday, December 28th, in the midst of the chaos of the government shutdown and the circus acts that accompanied it. The public was invited to comment until January 28th (three days ago) with no extension. Local, regional, and national organizations including the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), the Wilderness Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club are among those who submitted comments, as well as organizations representing the media, including the Society for Environmental Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
As part of the change, requests would be transferred to Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Jorjani, a former advisor to the mega-donor conservative Koch brothers. Interior career staff previously oversaw the requests, while Jorjani is a political appointee.
FOIA requests would also need to be much more detailed according to the new rules, and among other caveats, Interior “will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search.” And of course it is incumbent on the Department of Interior’s Jorjani to determine what constitutes an “unreasonably burdensome search”. The proposal comes amid a large uptick in FOIA requests as journalists, climate advocates, and others work to gain information about the Trump administration’s large-scale environmental rollbacks and efforts targeting public lands.
Last week, the Interior Department announced that it would extend the comment period by only one day, from January 28 to January 29, after more than 150 organizations requested an extension. The department said the 24-hour extension was to “ensure interested parties have the full 30 days to submit their responses.” Without a second extension, the comment period ended at midnight on Wednesday.
And in related news … The Wilderness Society reported yesterday that in Wyoming, 140 parcels, totaling 150,000 acres were posted for sale. Meanwhile, in Utah, 156 parcels, totaling 217, 475 acres were posted. These actions, also, had been announced during the shutdown, but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had only a week to review comments from the public. The entire process brings into question, how much consideration the BLM gave to the comments submitted. That is our land, folks … public land.
Funny, but I remember some point during Trump’s campaign that he said he would “drain the swamp” and make government more ‘transparent’. Apparently the words ‘swamp’ and ‘transparency’ have been re-written under the alternative dictionary of Trump & Co.
What could possibly go wrong if this proposal is finalized, as I expect it will be? Let’s think about what the Interior Department does. It is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal lands and natural resources, and the administration of programs relating to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, territorial affairs, and insular areas of the United States.
With both actions and speech, Trump has shown time and again that any respect he has for the public lands, for the protection of wildlife, and for the Native American tribes takes a backseat to profit for the oil, gas and coal industries. His massive de-regulations on the fossil fuel industry, his promotion of pipelines such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access, and his lack of concern over clean air & water, marine life, wildlife, and human health make it essential that we have transparency in the departments (Interior, EPA and Agriculture) that manage these functions. And now, that is being taken away. And we hardly noticed, for we were focused on the circus.