Agency Heading National-Monuments Audit Pushed for Records

WASHINGTON (CN) –  A conservation group studying the last administration’s designation of five national monuments claims in a federal complaint that its records demand has been gathering dust at the Interior Department.

Western Values Project filed its request under the Freedom of Information Act back in January. Claiming to still be waiting on a response that the Interior Department was required by statute to issue within 20 days, the group sought court intervention in Washington.

As laid out in the May 24 complaint, the group is seeking “scientific studies, scientific data, agency management plans, maps, photos, references, testimony, public comments, Congressional input, legal analysis or other such information used to develop the monument designations since January 1, 2014.”

President Barack Obama established five national monuments in that window: Bears Ears in Utah, Gold Butte in Nevada, Browns Canyon in Colorado, Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, and the Cascade-Siskiyou unfurling across Oregon and Washington.

Western Values says the Interior Department has been silent on the request, despite acknowledging receipt of it on Jan. 24. 

The million-plus acre Bears Ears was one of several national monuments toured earlier this month by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, whom the Senate confirmed in March.

Zinke’s trip was spurred by President Donald Trump’s April signing of an executive order that authorizes Zinke to review protections of tens of millions of acres of lands under the federal Antiquities Act. Trump’s order also gave Zinke broad powers to decide if previous administrations abused their own power in making designations.

Unlike his predecessor Sally Jewell’s well publicized tour of Bears Ears in July, Zinke’s tour of  Bears Ears this month went off quietly.  He traveled with his own crew of staff for his first round of evaluations, sometimes on horseback, mostly by helicopter. He conducted few interviews afterward.

The Big Ears National Monument was one of five sites designated by President Barack Obama under the federal Antiquities Act. (Photo by U.S. Bureau of Land Management via Courthouse News)

Zinke praised the site’s splendor during his trip but indicated his concern over whether a monument designation was the right vehicle to preserve legacy spots like the Utah monument.

The Deseret News reported in May that, when Zinke was pressed for information on the new administration’s plans for Bears Ears, and how it might impact ancient Native American sites in the area, Zinke’s wagged his finger at Cassandra Begay, a Native Indian rights advocate. “Be nice,” he told her. “Don’t be rude.”

While the interior secretary and the Trump administration have been largely mum on the inner workings of the monument-review process thus far, Sen. Mike Lee, R.-Utah, told constituents at a May 17 town hall meeting that he was confident the administration would overturn the Bears Ears protection or “significantly” downsize its acreage. 

Western Values Project executive director Chris Saeger slammed the agency’s handling of his group’s request. 

“Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration have done everything they can to shut the public out of their sham review, but we’re not going to let them get away with withholding basic information that they are required by law to disclose,” Saeger said.

A nonprofit founded in 2013, the pro-environment Western Values Project is seen as the idealogical counterbalance to the oil-and-gas-funded political action committee Western Energy Alliance.

The group is represented in the May 24 lawsuit by D.C. attorney Scott Hodes.

A representative for the Interior Department has not returned a request for comment.

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