On July 7, 2022, GHCC filed a complaint against the US Forest Service (USFS) to address the agency's non-compliance with multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These requests related to how the USFS was applying the Eastside Screens, a rule that generally prohibited logging large and mature trees on national forests in eastern Oregon and Washington, as well as the recent process that amended the rule. We are represented in the matter by Crag Law Center and attorney Dave Bahr. The amendment is the subject of a separate lawsuit that GHCC filed alongside five other environmental conservation organizations last month.
The Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1967, requires that public agencies provide citizens information upon request, allowing for limited exceptions to protect things like personal privacy or national security. Agencies will use these exemptions to redact some of the information provided in response to a FOIA request, but there are well-established rules on how the agencies must identify information that is redacted, and how long they have to provide a response. If information is not properly disclosed, or not done so in a timely manner, the requester can appeal, giving the agencies a brief window of additional time to comply. If the information is still not provided, applicants can file a lawsuit to request the courts to force the agencies to comply.
In response to our FOIA requests, the US Forest Service redacted or otherwise did not provide 22,870 pages of documents and 2.47 GB of digital files related to the screens amendment. That’s over 60% of the documents in our request. They also did not provide detailed information on why such a huge volume of documents and data were redacted and no timeline for future document releases or responses to appeals. Both actions are in violation of FOIA’s rules. Absent compliance from USFS, we are forced to seek a legal remedy.
GHCC filed this FOIA request as part of our broader effort to ensure the US Forest Service maintains protections for large and mature trees, and the wildlife that depends on them, across our mission area. In eastern Oregon and Washington's forests, only 3% of large trees remain, and the Eastside Screens, until illegally amended last year, were the primary enforceable standard that kept them from being logged. In the process to amend the Eastside Screens, a political appointee changed the rule in the final days of the Trump Administration. This action circumvented the rules imposed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), bedrock environmental laws that require in-depth analyses and the opportunity for public involvement in changes to policies impacting the environment. Substantially ignoring our FOIA request further illustrates how, in amending the Eastside Screens, the US Forest has not fulfilled its legal obligations; the public has largely been kept in the dark on how and why this change impacting over 7 million acres of forests was made.
More broadly, FOIA protects all of us from government overreach. It allows ordinary citizens and advocacy groups an opportunity to see how government decisions are made, reducing opportunities for industries and special interests to meddle in how our federal government functions. If cases such as this one are left unchallenged, it invites federal agencies to operate with less transparency, and it reduces how effectively we and other watchdog groups can function. FOIA compliance is critical to our ability to ensure government agencies are working on behalf of and in the interest of the broader general public. By filing this lawsuit, we hope to get a quick remedy from the courts instructing the USFS to release the documents and provide detailed explanation, as required by the law, on anything that was redacted.