The U.S. Forest Service faces litigation after it failed to provide public documents about a fire mitigation project proposal that would impact more than 235,000 acres of land in Santa Barbara, SLO, and Ventura counties.
Los Padres ForestWatch Director of Conservation and Research Bryant Baker said the agency missed several deadlines to turn the information over to the environmental nonprofit.
“So many things happened over the last few months,” Baker said. “We filed a lawsuit because we are unsure when we are going to receive these documents [or] if we are going to receive them at all.”
Along with getting all of the information, the lawsuit also asks for an investigation regarding prolonged delays and issues with requests, Baker said.
“There’s a pattern that’s really emerged over the last several years, mostly with these logging and vegetation removal projects,” he said. “We are asking that special counsel look into this and make a determination about what steps they can [take] to remediate this issue and break this pattern of noncompliance.”
The Ecological Restoration Project is one of the largest projects proposed in Los Padres that ForestWatch has seen, Baker said. Once the Forest Service issued the proposal in July, it kicked off a 30-day comment period during which ForestWatch immediately filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for any and all information that wasn’t made initially available.
“We do this for every project, so the Forest Service is very familiar that we ask for more information and ask for expedited processing,” Baker said. “Normally it’s a 20-day period the agency has to respond to your request and give a determination on how they will process your request.”
In September—two months after the Ecological Restoration Project’s comment period—the Forest Service missed several deadlines before releasing only 18 pages of documents, stating that the request wasn’t “specific enough,” he said.
“You don’t have to be specific about what you are looking for,” Baker said. “When you file a FOIA request, you don’t know what documents the agency has. Asking for all records related is completely permissible.”
The local office directed ForestWatch to file any follow-up requests with the Washington, D.C., office, which receives more requests and already has a backlog, he said.
After submitting a second, more detailed request to the Washington, D.C., office, ForestWatch heard back from the service in November, saying they located 3,726 pages of documents related to the Ecological Restoration Project.
“To wrap up this timeline, nothing has changed after we filed our lawsuit. Those 3,000-plus documents the Forest Service said they located, that [request] was on Nov. 9 and we still have not received them,” Baker said on Dec. 19.
Attorney Maya Kane, who represents ForestWatch and helps with FOIA requests, said there are seven outstanding requests to the Los Padres National Forest—including one from 2019, one from July that’s 141 days overdue, and three that are 70 days overdue—and this is the second time litigation came into play regarding legal access to information.
“When you get a [FOIA] request and if those records are public, you are required to provide records within a statutory timeframe,” Kane said. “Litigation is not the answer. We should not have to litigate to obtain records that should be provided to the public.”
Requiring requests to go to the Washington, D.C., office, not assigning a required tracking number, and responses asking for descriptions of documents have all been tactics Kane said she’s seen the Forest Service use to delay releasing information when a project’s comment deadlines are passing.
“Without response records, [ForestWatch] is not able to meaningfully engage. The ForestWatch can’t do their job and that’s why we were forced into this position,” she said. “These agencies work for us. They are protecting federal public land, and sharing what they are doing and being transparent is in everybody’s best interest.”
The U.S. Forest Service said it does not comment on pending litigation. The agency has 30 days to file a response in court.