One environmental organization is challenging what it says is a "culture of secrecy" created under Secretary Ryan Zinke in the U.S. Department of the Interior. The organization, Earthjustice, has requested documents related to decisions about allowed uses in Utah’s Bear Ears and surrounding areas.
Earthjustice is filing the lawsuit on behalf of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth who claim the department is keeping the American people in the dark about lands and resources.
Yvonne Chi is an associate attorney at the Denver office of Earthjustice. The non-profit represents other environmental organizations including the Southern Utah Wilderness Society in national-scale lawsuits.
“Public interest organizations are very much dependent on the Freedom of Information Act to submit requests for information to the agencies to sort of get decisions, get information on what the agencies are doing,” Chi said.
The Freedom of Information Act allows the public to request information from government agencies and promotes transparency. Chi said this information is necessary for her group to decide what issues to pursue, in this case, they are seeking email and other correspondence about proposed activities in and around Bears Ears.
“Decisions about drilling, decisions about public lands,” Chi said. “And we have not seen this degree of delay before and that’s why we’re questioning this culture of secrecy.”
When her office requests information, Chi said they are unlikely to receive the information until they file a lawsuit, which is not how the act is supposed to work.
“When we were asking about the delay and a timeline for giving us these documents,” Chi said, “what they are saying is that they have experienced many FOIA requests, they are simply overburdened, and so they have just not enough resources to process our request. That’s not a valid excuse.”
UPR was unable to obtain a comment on this issue from Department of the Interior and was referred to the Department of Justice because the issue is part of ongoing litigation.