Tag Archives: public lands

New Boundary Waters FOIA Complaint Filed Against US Department of Interior

Yesterday, I submitted my complaint against the United States Department of interior to the US District Court in the District of Columbia, asking the court to compel DOI to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and release documents I’ve requested about the Boundary Waters reversal.

As a pro se litigant, I had to petition the court for leave to use the Electronic Case Filing system, so for now I am in the slow lane, waiting for my paper filing to be assigned a case number. [Update, August 2, 2019: Galdieri v. US Department of the Interior has been assigned Case No: 1:19-cv-02253 and Judge James E. Boasberg has also granted my motion for pro se access to Electronic Case Filing.] In the meantime, I thought it would be helpful to post the complaint online.

There have been a number of reports lately about the efforts to hobble FOIA at the Department of Interior; and just this week, Gail Ennis, the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior, announced an investigation of the department’s FOIA Awareness Process.

Ennis is taking this step after several watchdog groups, including American Oversight and the Western Values Project, charged that the awareness review policy at Interior was instituted to protect Trump political appointees from public scrutiny. (EPA instituted a similar policy last month.)

In my complaint, I mention the expansion of that policy in February, 2019, to cover Ryan Zinke and other officials. It seems to have played into Interior’s abrupt cessation of all communications with me, and its apparent decision to withhold responsive documents.

After corresponding with me fairly regularly for almost a year about my FOIA request, providing two document releases, and promising “additional documents” as part of a “rolling response,” Interior went silent on me as soon as I put the documents I obtained online. Since February, when I first published those documents, they have failed to respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting a status update on forthcoming releases. They even failed to respond to several emails asking whether I had, in fact, exhausted all administrative remedies. I guess their silence is the answer to my question.

I suspect I’ve been blacklisted, or, if that’s too strong a word, at least singled out. My argument here is not just post hoc propter hoc. About a month after I first put the Interior documents online, something else happened to deepen my suspicions.

On March 26th, the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior began to follow me on Twitter.

Jorjani1

This account — which was created in February of 2017, never tweeted, and has since been taken down — appears to have belonged to Daniel Jorjani (DJ). In February of 2017, Daniel Jorjani was Principal Deputy Solicitor (PDSOL) at the Department of Interior: DJ, the PD, at SOL. (I have no idea what the 9999 is about.) He’s now Acting Solicitor and — let’s not forget — he also serves as the Department’s Chief FOIA Officer.

Back in March, the DJPDSOL9999 account was following a number of environmental organizations, like EarthJustice, the NRDC, the Center on Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Western Environmental Law, Wilderness Watch, Cultural Survival, and Indian Land Tenure. DJPDSOL9999 was also following Jenny Rowland Shea, who writes about public lands for American Progress, Anna Massoglia, who researches dark money, Aaron Weiss from the Center for Western Priorities, and climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. The list went on.

At the time he followed me, @DJPDSOL999 had “liked” only one thing, and that was on March 21st of this year: a retweet with comment by “Matilda Williams” (@katherinewill27) of a tweet by Swing Left of a Washington Post article.

Jorjani2

The article in question is by Julie Ellperin: “Federal Judge Demands Trump Administration Reveal How Its Drilling Plans will Fuel Climate Change.” It’s about a ruling by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras that the Department of Interior “violated federal law by failing to take into account the climate impact of its oil and gas leasing in the West.” Judge Contreras ordered the Bureau of Land Management “to redo its analysis of hundreds of projects in Wyoming.” It was a big loss for BLM. Jeremy Nichols of Wild Earth Guardians is quoted as saying that the ruling “calls into question the legality of the Trump administration’s entire oil and gas program” — which is, of course, Daniel Jorjani’s responsibility.

The lazy false equivalence drawn by Matilda Williams — Obama too! — misses the entire point of Ellperin’s article. “While the Interior Department began to take into account the climate impacts of federal oil, gas and coal leasing toward the end of Obama’s second term, administration officials jettisoned those plans when President Trump took office.” Zinke, Pruitt, and Jorjani himself were enlisted in this fight, and back in March, DJPDSOL9999 apparently felt that they got a bad deal.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with the Chief FOIA Officer at the Department of Interior operating a stealth account on Twitter. If, however, he’s using it to track people who are making public records requests, that is going to raise serious ethics concerns, especially if he is denying or withholding records on the basis of what those people publish.

Perhaps the Inspector General’s report will shed further light on the matter.

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here

Bernhardt, Biodiversity, and the Boundary Waters

At a hearing yesterday of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Betty McCollum asked newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt —again — for documents regarding the decisions and actions taken on the Boundary Waters. Bernhardt was politely evasive, but made it clear that Interior is more likely to comply with the mining company’s plans than with Congressional demands.

The full exchange is cued up here:

A few notes.

We should take a moment to appreciate that Representative McCollum used some of her time to talk about the recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This global assessment brought alarming news. McCollum started by asking whether it was being taken seriously at Interior, and how Interior could possibly continue to advance Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda in light of the report’s findings:

The UN Report also stated that the health of the ecosystems that we and other species depend on is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, our livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. Around one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.

So, Mr. Secretary, like the Fourth National Climate Assessment, this information is very sobering, and I believe it’s a call for action. So with the release of this information will the Department of Interior take a pause in its approach to energy development, to reexamine the impacts of these operations on ecosystems, species, and habitats, to see if there are better approaches?

Without waiting for a reply, McCollum continued:

The report also states that the abundance of native species in most land — major land based habitats has declined by 20 percent. And so I want to know how the Department is going to work to sustain native plants on public lands, and …the last thing that I’ll mention that the report highlights is the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on nature. With those impacts projected to increase over the coming decades. So I believe, and I believe many Americans would agree with me, that we can’t continue a business as usual approach. So how’s the Department going to incorporate this science into your everyday operations and long range planning? In other words, what are you doing to make sure the United States is a leader, and not a contributor, in the eroding of the foundations of our economies, our livelihoods, and the health and quality of life not only here in America but worldwide?

These remarks set the tone and context for the whole hearing, and for the brief exchange over the Boundary Waters. “The UN Report is on a lot more than just on climate change,” McCollum reminds Bernhardt at the beginning of the clip I’ve included above, “it’s also about pollution, mining, and land use.”

Indeed, the IPBES report notes that mining has “increased dramatically” in recent decades, and that it has already had “significant negative impacts on biodiversity, emissions of highly toxic pollutants, water quality and water distribution, and human health.” It adds that mining has had “strong negative effects on soil, freshwater and marine water quality and the global atmosphere.” As currently practiced, mining even jeopardizes responsible stewardship, as it has frequently led to “indigenous peoples or local communities [being] expelled from or threatened upon their lands.” In light of all this, the report recommends, among other things, “guiding and limiting the expansion of unsustainable agriculture and mining” to protect water and wetlands, which are under more pressure from human activity than ever before.

A thoughtful approach, but Bernhardt’s response was not even remotely satisfactory. He made some noises about how much he respected and appreciated McCollum’s question, but he was careful not to commit to handing over the requested documents. He left himself lots of wiggle room, basically claiming deliberative process privilege. Given his refusal, it was somewhat gratifying to hear that one of the documents I obtained through FOIA — an email to David Bernhardt on October 3rd, 2017, about a briefing on the Boundary Waters — was helpful to McCollum; but it was also frustrating to watch Bernhardt stonewall a Congressional committee.

Like Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Bernhardt assured Representative McCollum in the most earnest tones he could muster that once the mining permit process is underway, he’ll be open to public comment. By then, of course, it will be way too late. “There’s lots of opportunity for comment, review. There’s no way we’re going to approve something that’s destructive to the Boundary Waters. But there are processes we go through to analyze that.” This would be reassuring were it not for the fact that those “processes to analyze” had already been set in place — with the finding by US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell that sulfide mining posed an “unacceptable risk” to the Boundary Waters; with the issuing of Solicitor Tompkins’ M-Opinion; and with the mineral withdrawal study in Superior National Forest — and Bernhardt, Perdue, and other Trump political appointees abruptly cancelled and reversed all of them.

Why? We don’t know. They refuse to say.

If you listen closely to Bernhardt, his true position becomes clear. “If the applicant” — namely, Antofagasta Plc — “were to go forward, there are lots of opportunities for comment and review.” He’s leaving all discretion to the mining company. He refuses to grapple with the fact that reversals of Obama era protections — the reinstatement of the mineral leases — were unlawful, as McCollum points out here.

We know from the documents we have that Interior basically followed the mining company’s lead, and worked closely and behind closed doors with mining company lobbyists, in making this unlawful reversal. What else is Bernhardt holding back from the public?

Update, 15 May 2019. At today’s hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Alan Lowenthal again pressed Bernhardt on the Boundary Waters leases, and asked about the Briefing Memo and the Withdrawal Options document identified in the email correspondence I obtained through FOIA.

At the end of last week, the Committee received thousands of pages in response to their request for documents. This document dump consisted mostly of duplicates and materials that had already been made public through FOIA, and some pages were filled with garbage characters — what Lowenthal called “jibberish.” The Briefing Memo and the Withdrawal Options documents were included, but fully redacted, as they are in the documents I received.

The whole exchange is here.

Bernhardt was non-committal and evasive, as before. But today he had an ace up his sleeve. Toward the end of the hearing, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it had renewed Antofagasta’s copper-nickel mining leases near the Boundary Waters. This is an important step forward for the Twin Metals project.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

A Standing Offer to Steve Kornacki

Last week, Richard Painter tweeted out this clip of an interview he did with NBC’s Steve Kornacki back in April of 2018. At the time, Painter was running against Tina Smith for Al Franken’s senate seat.

Notice what happens just before Kornacki pushes Painter on the credibility of Franken’s accusers — starting around the 1:07 mark here. Painter says that Smith should be “a lot stronger against” Trump on three fronts: first, she should have come out against his trade war; second, she should call for his removal from office, because he is unable to execute his constitutional duties; and

furthermore, we have serious problems in the state of Minnesota where out of state mining interests are coming into our state, large conglomerates, with the support of the Trump administration, seeking to destroy our Boundary Waters and other waterways in the state of Minnesota. Our establishment Democratic, Farm Labor, senators and members of Congress, most of them are not standing up to that. So we need to have — both parties to be fixed; both parties need to be fixed.

Kornacki sums up what he is “hearing”: “I’m hearing trade, I’m hearing impeachment,” and then he rushes headlong into the topic that will dominate the rest of the segment: whether Richard Painter believes Al Franken’s accusers. How is it possible Kornacki didn’t hear the bit about mining interests? It’s all the more remarkable because Painter spent the most time on the mining story, about twice as much time as he did on impeachment, and a lot more time than he did on trade. How could Kornacki simply skip over it? Why no follow up?

The most likely answer is, Kornacki already knew where this interview was heading — back to Al Franken — and the mining story looked like nothing more than a detour. In retrospect, however, it looks as if Kornacki missed a big political story, or several stories, details of which are only now coming to light.

To stick just to the Boundary Waters story for the moment: a foreign mining company and its lobbyists appear to have dictated decisions at the US Department of Interior. As documents obtained through FOIA make clear, these decisions were coordinated at the highest levels of the US government, with USDA, the White House and the State Department all in the loop. And it sure looks as if the fix was in from the very first days of the new administration, with a predetermined outcome guiding the moves federal government officials made behind closed doors, without public input, and with disregard for science, economics, and the law.

I’ve offered to buy Steve Kornacki lunch and walk him through the details of this story. That’s a good faith, standing offer. There is even more at stake here than the just administration of public lands and the protection of waterways. This is also a story about a coordinated effort to sidestep democratic governance and undermine our shared public life. That ought to be of some interest to a national political correspondent for NBC News.

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters Reversal here.

Sonny Perdue “Broke His Word” on the Boundary Waters

Representative Betty McCollum said last week that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had broken his word and betrayed his responsibility to care for public lands.

She made these remarks in response to Perdue’s cancellation of the two-year environmental review of the mining withdrawal of Forest Service lands adjacent to the Boundary Waters.

McCollum called out this exchange with Perdue on May 25, 2017.


(A transcript of the exchange may be found here).

It’s interesting, and in hindsight it’s perhaps telling, that Perdue answers before US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell can. Just about five months earlier, in December of 2016, Tidwell had stated unequivocally that allowing the Twin Metals mine would likely result in acid mine drainage to the Boundary Waters and the surrounding watershed — “an unacceptable risk.” But before Tidwell has a chance to answer — and presumably walk the committee through these findings — his new boss takes it upon himself to respond.

Perdue right away reassures McCollum and other members of the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee that he and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had “already met about this,” and they had agreed that “none of us, I’m not smart enough to know what to do without the facts base and the sound science, and we are absolutely allowing [the study] to proceed.” But despite this pledge, his posturing before the committee (“the buck stops here”), and his invocation of the “Hippocratic oath: first of all, do no harm,”

Secretary Perdue broke his word, bending to political pressure from a foreign mining company and abandoning sound science to give a green light to toxic sulfide-ore mining in the watershed that feeds the BWCA. Like the President he serves, Sec. Perdue’s word cannot be trusted.

McCollum’s statement continues:

The Trump Administration’s abandonment of the Rainy River Watershed mining withdrawal study is a politically-motivated and callous betrayal of their responsibility to care for our public lands. It completely disregards the scientific evidence that sulfide-ore mining in the watershed will cause irreparable harm to the pristine wilderness of the Boundary Waters. The Trump Administration is eliminating sound science from the equation in order to ram through a destructive giveaway to their friends at a foreign-owned mining corporation.

McCollum understood back in 2017 that Perdue was “receiving pressure from the mining industry.” Along with the Department of the Interior, the Executive Office of the President, and members of the House and Senate, the new Secretary of Agriculture was already being lobbied on the Twin Metals mineral leases. Lobbying reports filed by WilmerHale indicate that an inter-agency, full court press was already underway as early as the first quarter of 2017, even earlier than agency calendars or the timeline I have put together from them indicate.

So it’s hard to credit Perdue’s representations to the House committee in May of 2017 that when he and Zinke met to discuss the Twin Metals mineral leases, they agreed that they were not the smartest guys in the room, and they should wait to have all the facts before rushing headlong into any decisions. It now appears their minds were already being made up for them.

Postscript. 15 September 2018. Some notes on the Zinke-Perdue meeting in this Twitter thread.

 

Purdy on Public-Lands Populism

From the closing paragraphs of Jedediah Purdy’s Whose Lands? Which Public?

In its monuments proclamations, the Trump Administration asserts a sweeping power to reclassify fifteen million acres of protected federal land and hundreds of millions of marine acres. The proclamations already issued, which purport to strip more than a million acres of monument status, are redolent of this Administration’s illiberal and procedurally dubious tendencies. They elevate to federal policy the themes and goals of a strand of Western populism that is tainted with outlawry and racism. The proclamations also cater to extractive industries, particularly uranium, oil and gas, and coal, in ways that resonate with the Trump Administration’s relentless mixing of public wealth and private interest–in a phrase, its penchant for corruption….

Corruption is not a novel concern here. For well over a century, the field [of public-lands law] has been shaped by recognition that precipitate and opportunistic privatization is a perennial temptation in a body of law that governs nearly a third of the country’s acreage and a great deal of its natural wealth. The Executive branch’s capacity for rapid, unilateral, and obscure action makes it especially suited to this form of misappropriation. Recognition of these facts is built into public-lands law in the long-standing asymmetric preference for Presidential power to preserve lands over Presidential power to privatize them…. The kind of opportunistic favoritism that the Trump proclamations display is precisely what public-lands law has been structured over centuries to avert. These proclamations are paradigms of why unilateral Presidential reclassification toward privatizing natural resources would be anomalous in public-lands law. A Court would properly consider the anomaly in deciding whether the power to create national monuments should imply the power to unmake them.

In the case of the Trump proclamations, the question of opportunism and favoritism in reclassification decisions interacts with the influence of racially inflected nationalism and localist outlawry on the Administration’s priorities. Here too, as with corruption, these themes are not novel or alien to public-lands law. Extractivism, settler-colonialism, and the priority of property-style resource claims and local control are, in key ways, continuations of the themes that governed the first hundred years of public-lands law. Their constituencies have never left the field. It is partly because of these constituencies’ persistent opposition to preservation agendas that public-lands law has always been inflected by disputes over national identity, from the utilitarian nationalism of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt’s national forests to the national parks’ much-advertised status as the American answer to Europe’s cathedrals to the claim that wilderness preservation would keep the country from becoming a “cage.”

Here too, public-lands law has been shaped by grappling with the themes that the Trump proclamations raise. And here too its shape contains a good part of an answer. The public-lands populists’ claims on behalf of privatizing and extractive policies already have a specific legal expression that is deeply embedded in public-lands law: in long-standing public rights-of-way across the federal lands of the West, in mining and mineral-leasing regimes, in grazing rights, and in the default policy of extensive public recreational access — and, above all, in the private real estate that was substantially created under federal privatization schemes. In other words, these claims do not come from outside public-lands law. They are part of it, and they occupy a specific place in its structure. Where they have been vested, they tend to persist within new regimes that otherwise emphasize preservation over extraction and economic use. On multiple-use lands, they play a prominent part in the statutorily mandated planning process. Where, however, they are not vested but take the form of inchoate expectations of continued access, they yield on categorically protected lands: new privatizing and extractive claims are almost uniformly excluded under preservation regimes. For such claims to get traction again, the lands themselves must be reclassified. That reclassification is generally reserved to Congress. If the Antiquities Act authorizes the President to hand a victory to public-lands populists by reclassifying hotly contested lands, then it is a dramatic anomaly in public-lands law. It would authorize constant perennial and shifting reopening of precisely the disputes that the field exists to structure and resolve, and through a mechanism that is procedurally orthogonal to the rest of the field.

The Trump proclamations raise a novel question for interpretation of one of the most important public-lands statutes. Like much that this Administration does, however, it is not so much new as it is an effort to reopen questions that many of us had hoped were closed. In this case, they should remain closed.

Another Note on the Boundary Waters Reversal

Jorjani Calendar

A 25 July 2017 entry from Daniel Jorjani’s calendar shows a meeting with Antofagasta Plc on the Twin Metals project.

One point I hoped to get across in Monday’s post about the Boundary Waters reversal has to do with journalism, or, more broadly, with storytelling. Just to highlight: scandal-mongering that generates clicks doesn’t necessarily get at the more prosaic and more complex truth of the story, and may end up doing a disservice. In the case of the Boundary Waters reversal, it is tempting to focus on the story of Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig and his Washington, D.C. tenants, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Was Luksic Craig’s purchase of the mansion where Jared and Ivanka now live an opening bid? Was the reversal connected to the rental?

This story of the rich and famous still merits investigating, but it carries with it a whole set of ideas — exaggerated and somewhat cartoonish ideas — of what corruption looks like: foreign billionaires, mansions, nepotism, winks and nods (remember what Luksic Craig said about meeting Trump at the Patriots’ game: “lo saludé.” “I said ‘hi’”).  All of those elements are certainly in play here, and they are part of what makes this administration appear so unabashedly corrupt and downright villainous.

At the same time, the story of Luksic Craig and his D.C. tenants could turn out to be a red herring, or what nowadays people call a nothingburger or fake news. Besides, there’s another, more immediately credible story that’s just there for the telling. What it lacks in tabloid glamour it makes up for with evidence. It unfolds among the banalities of meeting rooms, conference calls, memos, and after work events. This is the story Jimmy Tobias pursues in an excellent piece in the Pacific Standard, which I had not read before writing my post (and which, after reading, I linked to in a postscript).

Tobias beat me to the punch on the FOIA request, and obtained Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani’s calendar from May through December of 2017. He identifies two meetings about the Twin Metals project. The first is on June 14, 2017, with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale, the law and lobbying firm, on behalf of Antofagasta Plc.

Spielman is the Chair of WilmerHale’s Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Practice, and his name appears on the calendar heading, so we know that this is a high priority matter for the lobbying firm and presumably for the Department of Interior. And Treiser comes directly from the Department of the Interior, where she served under President Obama. She helped to “streamline” permitting on large infrastructure projects, and worked on the reform of offshore drilling regulations and energy development in Alaska. Now, as her biography on the WilmerHale site informs us, she has “successfully leveraged her substantive knowledge and insight into government processes.”

The second meeting is directly with Antofagasta Plc: the Chilean mining company comes to the Department of Interior to discuss its Minnesota claim, and it appears the Department rolls out the red carpet. WilmerHale had done its work. In addition to Principal Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, thirteen administration officials are in attendance, representing the highest reaches of the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. As Tobias notes, no conservation groups were invited to discuss the reversal with the Department of Interior. This was a conversation for insiders only.

At the center of this story is not a mansion, but a revolving door (and if you are not familiar with Bill Moyers’ short video essay on the subject, you should be). This feature of the story becomes even more apparent when we look at a couple of other meetings on Deputy Solicitor Jorjani’s calendar that Tobias didn’t flag but are connected with the Boundary Waters reversal. One is a Friday, May 26 call with Rachel Jacobson of WilmerHale, regarding a “DC Bar Event”; this call or this event might well have provided an opportunity to tee up the Twin Metals issue. It is the first contact WilmerHale makes with Principal Deputy Solicitor Jorjani— and who should they choose for that task but Jacobson, who held Jorjani’s job of Principal Deputy Solicitor under the Obama administration.

Then on Thursday, September 7th, when work on the reversal memo is presumably well underway, there is an internal meeting on Twin Metals: Jorjani with Jack Haugrud, who was Acting Secretary of the Interior until Zinke’s appointment, and Joshua Campbell, an Advisor to the Office of the Solicitor. Campbell is profiled here, on Western Values Project “Department of Influence” site, documenting the revolving door between special interests and the Department of Interior.

In these meetings, the public interest does not even come into play.

Postscript: Today, as I was writing this post, the Washington Post reported that the Forest Service will cancel a planned environmental impact study and instead conduct an abbreviated review of the Obama-era proposal to withdraw the Superior National Forest lands near the Boundary Waters from minerals exploration for up to 20 years. The story also appears in the Star Tribune. Things are moving fast now, and pressure is mounting.

Is Corruption at Interior Putting the Boundary Waters At Risk?


On the afternoon of Friday, December 22nd, with Congress in recess and most Americans already starting their holiday celebrations, the Department of the Interior issued a 19-page legal memorandum reversing hard-won, eleventh-hour Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Signed by Interior’s Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, Memo M-37049 allows Twin Metals, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta Plc, to renew its leases of Superior National Forest lands where it proposes to mine copper, nickel, and other minerals for the next 100 years.

Even one year of mining would scar the land, destroy wetlands, wreck the forest and fill it with industrial noise, and pollute the water. And this kind of mining — sulfide mining — always risks major environmental catastrophe, long after a mine is closed and the land reclaimed. After a brief reprieve, the Twin Metals project is again threatening this unique public wilderness area, along with the thriving tourist and outdoor economy that has grown up around it.

The reversal was immediately met with allegations of corrupt dealing. In a statement calling the move by Interior “shameful,” Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton cried foul.

A December 22nd headline in the Wall Street Journal offered what appeared to be a straightforward explanation: cronyism. “Trump Administration to Grant Mining Leases That Will Benefit Landlord of President’s Daughter Ivanka Trump.” But Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, whose family controls Antofagasta Plc, and who only after Trump’s election purchased the Washington, D.C. mansion Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner rent for $15,000 a month, claims never to have met his tenants, and says he met Donald Trump only once, at a New England Patriots game.

It’s unclear whether Luksic Craig’s denials can be taken at face value and whether they are enough to dispel the notion that the reversal was made directly to benefit Antofagasta or the Luksic family. What prompted the action? Who directed it? Who contributed to the memo, and who reviewed it? What conversations did Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, and other administrators have about the reversal, and with whom?

The public deserves clear answers to these questions, and last week, I submitted a FOIA request to the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior, to see if I might gain some insight into the process behind Memo M-37049. At the same time, it’s worth noting that these are not the only questions worth asking. Luksic Craig and his Washington, DC mansion may make good headlines, tabloid fodder, and Twitter snark, and there is no ignoring the whiff of impropriety about his real-estate dealings with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who also happen to be senior White House advisors. But that’s not the whole story here. A scandal involving Luksic-Craig and his tenants, or some direct dirty dealing between Antofagasta and Interior, might eventually come to light, but the prospect of such a scandal might also serve to distract us from other, large-scale corruption that continues to put the Boundary Waters — and other public lands and waters — at serious risk.

Put the reversal in context. Consider, for example, the Executive Order, entitled “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” that was issued just two days before the Boundary Waters reversal, and which, like the Interior memo, sets the stage for exploitation of mineral resources on public lands. The EO appeared to be the policy outcome of a U.S. Geological Survey of the country’s critical minerals resources published on December 19th; but Trump’s December 20th order was years, not one day, in the making.

The EO revives Obama-era legislative battles over so-called strategic and critical minerals and declares victory by executive fiat. Back in 2013, pro-mining measures introduced in both the House (HR 761) and the Senate (S 1600) promised to “streamline” the permitting process for multinational companies mining on federal lands, like Superior National Forest. The Obama administration opposed them on the grounds that they would allow mining companies to circumvent environmental review. Proponents of HR 761 called it cutting red tape; the resolution actually tried to shut the public out of the process. It touted jobs, but, as critics pointed out, provided no real strategy for creating them; and it hawked anti-Chinese hysteria of the kind that candidate Trump regularly advanced. (Tellingly, House Republicans rejected a motion that would have barred export to China of strategic and critical minerals produced under the HR 761 permit, in tacit acknowledgment that China drives global demand for copper and nickel.) Coming just two days after this EO, the Boundary Waters reversal looks less like a one-off favor to a Chilean billionaire, and more like a coordinated move in a broader campaign.

This subversion of public process is not just the dirty dealing of a few bad actors. It’s also the consequence of weakened institutions; and institutional sabotage — or what Steve Bannon pretentiously called the deconstruction of the administrative state — is the precursor to large-scale corruption. Scott Pruitt might still be the poster boy for putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but Ryan Zinke appears to be pursuing a similar brief at Interior. Though his bungling of the offshore drilling announcement made him appear incompetent, he is making big changes to favor big mining. The Secretary has made it one of his agency’s top ten priorities to “ensure access to mineral resources” and committed to minimizing “conservation objectives” that interfere with extractive industrial development. His plan to shrink Bears Ears followed a map drawn by a uranium mining company. At Grand Staircase-Escalante and Gold Butte National Monuments, Zinke has virtually surrendered vast swaths of public lands to extractive industry.

The Boundary Waters reversal, too, looks like the work of institutional saboteurs. It settles a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior by conceding that the government should not have discretion over public lands when commercial interests are at stake. Its author, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, did a brief stint at Interior during George W. Bush’s second term, but it was his high profile job as Executive Director of the Koch Institute that distinguished him as the right man for Ryan Zinke’s Interior. As Polluter Watch, a project of Greenpeace, notes, Jorjani was the Koch Institute’s very first hire, and among the five most highly compensated employees at the Charles Koch Foundation. Now, along with Scott Cameron and Benjamin Keel, Daniel Jorjani works with the team at Interior charged with “reviewing rules their previous employers tried to weaken or kill,” according to reporting by the New York Times and Pro Publica. Similar deregulation teams, “connected to private sector groups that interacted with or were regulated by their current agencies,” were formed at all administrative agencies. The teams put public institutions at the service of powerful patrons, subordinating public protections to private interests.

This capture and sabotage of government agencies compounds and multiplies risk, removing public safeguards and compromising appointed guardians. In the case of the Boundary Waters, the risk of irreversible damage and environmental catastrophe would extend far beyond the mining location, because mining in Superior National Forest would also significantly intensify the cumulative effects of the recent boom in leasing, exploration, and drilling throughout the Lake Superior watershed.

All around the greatest of the Great Lakes, the industrial footprint of sulfide mining operations is expanding rapidly. Just to the southwest of the Boundary Waters, for example, Polymet, a company that has never operated a mine before, proposes building an open pit copper and nickel mine that will require water treatment and tailings dam maintenance “in perpetuity” — that means forever. Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt is dismantling federal rules requiring hardrock mining companies to take financial responsibility for cleanup.

State regulatory agencies are poorly equipped to oversee these new projects. They often fail to give the public a meaningful voice in permitting, or obtain the required prior consent from the region’s Indigenous nations. For their part, many state politicians are racing to deregulate, or at least accommodate, the mining companies. Just this past October, Wisconsin republicans repealed the state’s Prove it First law, which required copper, nickel and gold miners to prove that they could operate and close a sulfide mine without producing acid mine drainage. (They never proved it.) In Michigan, where Canadian mining companies are moving aggressively into the Upper Peninsula, State Senator Tom Casperson has just proposed giving mining companies and other representatives of industry “disproportionate clout” in the review of environmental rules.

Obviously this all goes way beyond doling out favors to billionaire friends or cronies at Mar-A-Lago, and it didn’t start when the Trumps came to town. Until it is called out, voted out, and rooted out, corruption at this scale – coordinated, institutionalized, systemic – will make a mockery of rule-making and oversight, and put our public lands, as well as our public life, at risk.

Postscript: This January 10th article by Jimmy Tobias in the Pacific Standard takes a careful look at Daniel Jorjani’s calendar, which was obtained through a records request, and identifies two meetings with representatives of the Twin Metals mining project: a June 14, 2017 meeting with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale on behalf of Twin Metals, and a July 25th meeting with Antofagasta Plc. I discuss these meetings in this follow up post.

Read more posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here.