Agency may be lagging in turning over documents requested under Freedom of Information Act
By Bob Berwyn
The U.S. Forest Service must try to dig up more documents related to the controversial Wolf Creek Village development proposal, a federal judge ruled this week.
U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez ordered the agency to once again scour its files for emails, memos and other records that have been requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Community activists and public lands watchdog groups want to examine the paper trail because they believe that environmental studies for the development were tainted by political influence.
It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. In 2005, I reported for High Country News how a political appointee in Washington, D.C. used a little-known administrative loophole to drastically alter the White River National Forest land management plan. Protective water and wildlife standards were cut after the ski industry lobbied a Department of Agriculture undersecretary, claiming the standards were unrealistic.
Critics of the Wolf Creek development believe that would-be Wolf Creek developer Red McCombs also exerted political influence on the the process, which may have trickled down to the civil service level, where national forest administrators exchanged emails showing they were well aware of the political discussions higher up the food chain.
On behalf of community and environmental groups, Rocky Mountain Wild attorney Matt Sandler sought the court’s help to ensure Forest Service compliance with FOIA, but it’s not clear whether the agency will ever produce a smoking gun showing the process was illegal.
The Forest Service has said it’s not hiding or destroying any of the pertinent records, but the same court previously ruled that the Forest Service violated the Freedom of Information Act. The new Jan. 29 order gives the Forest Service another couple of months to search for more relevant documents. The judge also ordered attorneys in the dispute to meet in person by April 15 to discuss the FOIA request.
The order is the latest twist in a complex tangle of lawsuits, appeals and environmental studies all centered on the proposed development, which would include hundreds of new vacation homes in what is now a relatively untouched swath of classic Colorado high country forest, with plenty of room for roaming wildlife.
Two other lawsuits are also in play, as conservation advocates fight a legal holding action to at least slow the development.
“The Court has again ordered the Forest Service to complete a reasonable and comprehensive search for records” said Sandler. “It’s a shame it takes Court Orders to get the Forest Service to follow the law and act in the public interest.”
Sandler says the latest order shows that the Forest Service’s search was unlawfully narrow; that it neglected to search for communications to, or between, high-level employees, and that it failed to adequately justify why it withheld documents from public disclosure.