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for people who care about the West

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.