The 15th supplemental release of Boundary Waters documents in my FOIA case against the Department of Interior arrived yesterday. I’ve added the documents to documentcloud. Were I to characterize these records as disappointing, I might only be admitting that I still expect too much from them. Still, this release looks especially untidy, and there may be something going on behind the scenes — some change in staffing, for example — that I am not aware of.
First, the attorney assigned to my case in US District Court contacted me a couple of weeks ago to let me know that this production would be a few days late. When it came, the response letter, which accompanies every release and describes how many pages were reviewed, how many withheld, what exemptions were used, and so on, was missing. (Someone just forgot to attach it to the email, which begins “Attached is the Solicitor’s 15th Production response letter….”). The documents come from Brianna Collier, a career attorney in the Office of the Solicitor — who has been the main custodian of records in this case. We only catch glimpses of what Trump’s political appointees were doing when Collier is in the loop.
The documents themselves are heavily redacted, with deliberative process (b)(5) claimed throughout. Excerpts from Hein’s Legal Research Guides are the only records not redacted. They would be available publicly anyway. What can only be an earlier draft of the 19 page M-Opinion by then-Solicitor Daniel Jorjani dated December 5, 2017 is completely redacted. We know from the timeline that the memo was nearly finished by then, but instead of taking time to redact just those phrases and paragraphs which were still under deliberation, the FOIA officer applied a very broad brush on all 19 pages.
The FOIA officer took a slightly less aggressive approach to an August 7, 2018 memo written by Ryan Sklar on the Forest Service’s application to segregate 234,328 acres of federal land within Superior National Forest. This is the land withdrawn from mineral leasing and development while the US Forest Service completed “the necessary environmental analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA).” The law is clear. Sklar explains in a footnote:
Just one month later, of course, then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue would cancel the two-year assessment, claiming that “the analysis did not reveal new scientific information.” So far, we have had to take Sonny Perdue’s word for it; the findings of the cancelled withdrawal study still have not been released. The cancellation meant that any “final decision” on the application for mineral withdrawal would be made without a complete case file — without the complete NEPA document. And without a “final” NEPA document, review would likely be guided by political considerations, not scientific evidence.
Except for an intriguing closing sentence, the discussion section here is fully redacted:
There’s not much to go on here, except Sklar’s final note: discussions of “next steps” around the Rainy River Watershed withdrawal were “ongoing” just one month before Sonny Perdue abruptly cancelled the application. There were, at that point, five months to go in the review required by NEPA, and pressure on Sonny Perdue was at its peak, with Trump publicly directing Perdue to look at the withdrawal “very strongly” and reassuring Minnesota mining proponents that they would “do very well.” Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber, Rick Nolan, and Paul Gosar kept the pressure on Perdue behind the scenes.
It’s unlikely Sklar’s legal memo refers explicitly to that pressure campaign, but it’s also hard to believe that he or anyone working on this issue at Interior was unaware of it.
The agencies now need to deliver themselves from the legal and ethical morass Trump and his cronies left them in. Secretary of the Interior Haaland should ask BLM to request a complete case file from the US Forest Service, with the necessary NEPA analysis, so that BLM can evaluate and review the withdrawal and so that she can make a lawful decision. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should release the preliminary findings of the cancelled two-year scientific study, unredacted. He should also ask the USDA Inspector General to review Perdue’s decision to cancel the withdrawal application and NEPA analysis. And though it’s unlikely they will do everything they should to set things right — that’s a tall order, and they’ve inherited a mess — we can expect some steps in this direction before the end of next month, when the stay in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt expires.
Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.