The BLM fails to provide public records

The agency's main Freedom of Information Act office appears incompetent or overworked.

 

When High Country News began using the Freedom of Information Act to gather official reports of threats against federal employees in the West, we didn't expect that the main obstacle would arise in one federal agency's headquarters.

Our intention was positive: By examining and summarizing the incidents, we hoped to ease tensions and encourage more respect for the federal employees as they go about their duties in the field.

So we were surprised by the poor performance of the Bureau of Land Management's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office in Washington, D.C. Its response to our request for public records can only be described as dysfunctional.

We began our investigation in late January by filing FOIA requests with dozens of BLM field offices around the West, because the employees on the front lines bear the brunt of the threats and harassment. Then in February, the BLM's chief FOIA officer, Ryan Witt, urged us to "consolidate" our far-flung FOIA requests into a single request handled by Witt's office in D.C. Witt promised that running it all through his office would be would be more efficient, but as it has worked out, it's been the opposite.

A comparison illustrates the problem: We filed similar FOIA requests with U.S. Forest Service offices around the West, and by the end of June, that agency had provided more than 2,300 pages of records of threats targeting its employees. At that point, the BLM's FOIA office in D.C. had provided only 123 pages of records of incidents targeting BLM employees.

For two months after that, Witt and the FOIA officer to whom he delegated our request, Ore Fashola, stopped responding to us. Finally a lawyer in Witt's office, Mike Sarich, helped spring loose several hundred additional pages in September. At that point, Fashola promised to send a "final" release of the main BLM records by mid-September -- but since then, we've received nothing more from that set of records.

We still don't even have BLM's account of the worst incident since 2010 -- a shooter's attempted murder of two BLM rangers in Arizona, the opening scene in our introductory essay. We learned of that shooting through Forest Service records, because Forest Service employees helped search for the shooter who targeted the BLM rangers. Then we fleshed it out with our own investigation -- no thanks to the BLM.

On Oct. 14, Witt phoned to explain why his office hasn't yet provided the BLM's account of the Arizona shooting. He said he'd discovered that his agency has a separate set of records covering incidents in which BLM law-enforcement rangers use their guns. That set of records is bound to have the most serious BLM incidents related to our FOIA request, yet Witt's office overlooked them until we pressed for answers. Witt has now promised that we'll get that set of records within a month, and it will include four or five incidents in which rangers drew their weapons. Forgive us if we're skeptical about the timeline.

Whether the problem stems from overworked BLM FOIA officers in Witt's office, incompetence, political manipulation, or a paranoiac secrecy in the BLM's law-enforcement leadership, we encourage the head of the BLM, Neil Kornze, and his boss, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, to fix the problems in the BLM's FOIA office.

Ray Ring is a senior editor for High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.