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Public Comments Pour In About Interior Department's Plan For New FOIA Limitations

Photo of redacted documents.
Renee Bright / KUER
After months of being criticized for what some call a lack transparency, the U.S. Interior Department rolled out a plan that could make it even more difficult to get records request from the agency.

The U.S. Interior Department’s controversial plan to put new limits on Freedom of Information Act requests has received more than 61,000 public comments in the Federal Register.

Many expressed concern that the change would restrict access to government emails and documents.

The Interior Department has been inundated with public records requests over the past few years from journalists and environmental protection groups. The proposed changes would allow the Interior Department to limit the number of public records requests it processes every month. It would also make it tougher to get those requests quickly for breaking news stories.

“The rationale behind the changes, that there has been an increase in FOIA requests, is not resolved by the restriction of access to information that the changes would create,” wrote Andrew Werk Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana. “There is no correlation between the two. The need to reduce a backlog of requests is the responsibility of the agency, not the individuals or organizations requesting information.”

Other commenters included press advocacy organizations, environmental protection groups, and a coalition of local governmentsin Wyoming. There were also thousands of nearly identical comments from individual respondents.

Written by Daniel Jorjani, a top lawyer with the U.S. Interior Department, the rule was first proposed during the government shutdown in late December as a way to ease a processing backlog of requests. Some public records requests helped spur ethics investigations into former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned in early January.

“In the face of an unprecedented volume of FOIA requests and resulting litigation, we remain committed to transparency. By making operations more efficient, we will ensure more equitable and regular access to federal records for all requesters, not just litigious special interest groups,” Faith Vander Voort, a spokesperson for the U.S. Interior Department, wrote in a statement.

The agency will now review the comments before publishing a final rule.

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 and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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