Warning that it could threaten the ability to hold the department accountable, a watchdog group on Monday urged the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to refuse a request (pdf) from the Interior Department to destroy records including ones related to oil and gas leases and endangered species issues.
"It's unacceptable that Interior is already turning their efforts to destroying documents when they can't even respond to the public records requests they have coming in," said Chris Saeger, executive director of Western Values Project (WVP).
"Despite his claims to the contrary," Saeger added, "[Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke is trying yet again to pull wool over the eyes of the American people by keeping the public in the dark while his department wages attacks on public lands and wildlife."
As an agency mired in scandal that has struggled to fulfill the public's FOIA requests, deleting public records is about the the last thing @SecretaryZinke's @Interior needs to do. Our full statement and comment below. https://t.co/6WJIBuXIqa #InvestigateInterior pic.twitter.com/V6UDDalhkc— WVP (@Western_Values) November 26, 2018
As The Missoulian reported earlier this month, the proposal by Zinke to change how long documents are kept would cover six specific areas involving the agency's management of fish and wildlife:
Endangered Species Act management and plan files would be kept permanently. But things like draft species recovery plans, unmade critical habitat designations, coordination reports between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, wildlife survey data for critical habitat decisions, and species management files for non-endangered species under the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 would not.
Other sections include energy and mineral lease records, recreation planning materials, wild horse and burro records, land use permits, water use permits, and dam projects.
"Yet another attempt by the Trump administration to undermine protections for endangered species for their buddies in various polluting industries."
—Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological DiversityIn his group's letter (pdf) to the National Archives, Saeger notes that the "request covers documents going back more than 50 years from every agency within the Department of Interior," and expresses fears that green-lighting the move "could open the door for the destruction of similar types of records from the current administration, preventing the American public from ever determining whether high-ranking Interior officials, including Secretary Ryan Zinke and Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, acted in the public interest or on behalf of their own personal and political agendas."
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The letter continues:
This request to destroy records is concerning but hardly surprising in light of Secretary Zinke and Deputy Secreta1y Bernhardt's history of hiding the details of their activities. Zinke's Interior Department has only fulfilled 10.53 percent of FOIA requests that WVP submitted, resulting in ten lawsuits. Of the 171 FOIA requests WVP has sent to Interior, 132 are still outstanding. Additionally, WVP discovered Secretary Zinke's use of a secret calendar to schedule meetings with industry groups, including Peabody Energy, the International Association of Drilling Contractors, and Dominion Energy, omitted from the official calendars. These efforts to hide meetings with industry groups, combined with Interior's failure to fulfill many of WVP's FOIA requests, demonstrate a culture that allows for corruption at the expense of America's public lands. Giving Interior permission to destroy its records would only push the agency further into the dark.
While Arian Ravanbakhsh, National Archives supervisory analyst, wrote last month that it was "a normal request to consolidate and revise their previous records schedules into 'big buckets,'" other groups joined WVP in sounding alarm about the potential purge.
The National Whistleblower Center (NWC), for one, sent a letter to the NARA this month saying that it "considers this proposed change to be detrimental to the values of transparency and accountability within the Department of Interior."
The National Whistleblower Center is specifically troubled that the records destruction request includes A) marine issues, including fishing and conservation, B) endangered species issues, and C) the timber trade. Note that all three of these topics are incorporated in laws which also include whistleblower protection and reward provisions, which motivate those with information to assist law enforcement agents in investigating, prosecuting, and punishing crime which would otherwise be unreported
"Preserving documents is vital when dealing with issues such as wildlife trafficking and conservation," said Scott Hajost, managing director of the NWC's Global Wildlife Program. "Endangered species and habitats do not have the option of a second chance. Once destroyed, such records are gone forever."
According to Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Interior Department's request "is yet another attempt by the Trump administration to undermine protections for endangered species for their buddies in various polluting industries."