Garfield County Freedom of Information Act request yields 138 Department of Interior documents
Public comment on changes not sought prior to release of Environmental Impact Statement
July 12, 2016
On July 6, 2015, Garfield County sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) relative to several eleventh-hour changes to proposed land use management plans that will govern the use of public lands for decades.
When the DOI was unresponsive, Garfield County filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. On June 22, 2016, DOI turned over some 138 documents in response to the county’s FOIA request. Garfield County is in the process of reviewing these documents now.
On December 9, 2012, DOI started the scoping process relative to land use plan changes for greater sage-grouse. The process culminated nearly four years later on September 22, 2105, with the release of a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision for Northwest Colorado.
In the last 60-90 days of this process, the DOI significantly altered its preferred alternative to include new regulatory measures relative to: sage grouse “strongholds” or “focal areas;” the involvement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state wildlife agencies in granting waivers, modifications or exceptions to no surface occupancy areas (“NSOs”); and so-called hard or soft triggers.
The public effectively had no opportunity to review or comment on these significant changes. During this same time, however, it appears environmental groups, such as WildEarth Guardians, the Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and Advocates for the West, were corresponding with or meeting with the DOI on some of these same topics.
More than 200 parties, including Garfield County, filed protests with DOI over the substance of the new land use plans and the manner in which they were adopted. There are no fewer than nine lawsuits pending on these plans across the western United States.
Given frequent issues like this one, the Freedom of Information Act was updated on June 30, 2016 in an effort to improve transparency. DOI has also updated its FOIA regulations.