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ForestWatch Takes Trump Administration to Court Over Public Access to Carrizo Plain Review Documents
by Los Padres ForestWatch
Friday Mar 16th, 2018 10:08 AM
Santa Barbara, CA, March 15, 2018 — Today, Los Padres ForestWatch filed suit against the Department of the Interior after we 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 of last year, 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, Secretary 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 Department of the Interior in an attempt to obtain documents related to the review of the Carrizo Plain National Monument — why it 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 the course of six months, ForestWatch was still not told if or when the FOIA request would be fulfilled, leaving us no option but to bring the matter before an independent judge.

The Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to respond to requests for public records within 20 working days of receipt, and allows an additional ten-day extension for special circumstances. Our 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. What does he have to hide?”

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% 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 that 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 DC. The agency has 30 days to respond to our lawsuit.

Photo by Ronald L. Williams.
by Los Padres ForestWatch Friday Mar 16th, 2018 10:08 AM
The Carrizo Plain is known for its spectacular wildflower displays such as the 2017 California Superbloom. Photo by Bob Wick.

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