Forest Service Action Highlights Need for FOIA Reform

The Forest Service has refused to disclose documents regarding the Upper Echo Lake Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project.  More than four months after Dr. Dennis Murphy filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for e-mail regarding the Project in the possession of the agency's supervisor with oversight of the Project and lead biologist with respect to the Project, the agency has yet to turn over a single responsive record.  Instead, the agency attempted to fend off Dr. Murphy's inquiry by denying his request for fee waiver.  Dr. Murphy filed an administrative appeal of that decision, which the agency granted. As a consequence, Dr. Murphy has established he meets the agency's requirements for a fee waiver.

After the agency granted Dr. Murphy's administrative appeal, it nonetheless failed to produce the responsive records, requesting that Dr. Murphy consider narrowing his request.  Though he agreed to narrow his request and in spite of the facts that the request was pending for months and he won his appeal, the agency informed Dr. Murphy that it could not estimate when the records would be turned over.

This unwillingness to comply with the letter and spirit of FOIA is far from an isolated incident, which is why a bipartisan bill was introduced in 2014 to overhaul FOIA.  The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 is likely to be reintroduced in 2015.  The conduct of the Forest Service exemplifies the need for FOIA reform to promote open government.  More generally, if left unchecked, the agency is liable to continue to engage in conduct that is both dishonest and illegal, as it has during the planning and implementation phases of the Upper Echo Lake Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project.

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