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Interior Department Walks Back Controversial FOIA Changes

Photo illustration showing documents.
Renee Bright
A 30% increase in public records requests prompted the Interior Department to propose strict new Freedom of Information Act rules. But public outcry pressured the agency to back down.

The Interior Department has walked back controversial efforts to curb public records requests in a final rule published Friday

Interior says it’s been overwhelmed by hundreds of complex Freedom of Information Act requests, mostly from environmental groups. So late last year the agency proposed changing the way it handles such requests. 

For instance, the agency would’ve required individuals or groups to be much more specific about the documents they want. And the rules would’ve put a cap on the number of records processed every month. 

But after receiving roughly 65,000 public comments and facing intense criticism from members of Congress, tribal leaders and media organizations, Interior backed down.

“The great news is that requesters will have an easier time navigating the process than they would’ve had under the proposed rule,” said Sam Evans, national parks and forests leader at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Though Evans remains concerned because another Interior rule gives a top political appointee the power to potentially limit what information is released.

“The potentially embarrassing documents that might show that the agency has acted unlawfully are still going to get bottlenecked and filtered through some really intermitable review processes,” Evans said.

Interior says the political appointee is made aware of certain public record releases so they can prepare for any potential ramifications.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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