Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
With the help of the Kentucky Resources Council, Kentucky Heartwood (KHW) filed an appeal challenging the Forest Service's decision on August 17, 2021 to deny KHW a fee waiver request for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regarding the Blackwater Landscape Analysis. The Forest Servie is charging Kentucky Heartwood, and by proxy its membership, $3,734.36 to release the FOIA. Information that could lead to a better understanding of Blackwater is literally being held hostage by the Forest Service.
You may ask, “Why bother the Forest Service with a FOIA request? Isn’t it on the project page?” Non-profit organizations submit FOIA requests to federal agencies in order to gain the full picture of how a project is put together. Standard project pages curated by the Forest Service do not include critical pieces of information helpful for understanding the impacts of a project nor all of the components that led to decision. In FOIA requests, it is common to ask for all communications, specialists reports, silvicultural stand exams, other field surveys, mapping information such as Global Information Systems files, and proof of consultation with other federal agencies.
In return for the FOIA, nonprofit organizations agree to share information gleaned from FOIA requests. Kentucky Heartwood fulfills this requirement by posting information about FOIAs to our forest blog, newsletters, e-blasts, social media accounts, and a FOIA webpage where citizens may request documents. It is our express goal to make sure citizens know what is happening on federal lands.
Given the ways Kentucky Heartwood keeps citizens informed, it was curious that the Forest Service denied a fee waiver for the Blackwater Landscape Analysis. The organization’s executive director jumped through the Forest Service’s hoops by submitting a detailed FOIA request, cooperated in a “clarification call” where she articulated our request in detail, reviewed “perfected” documents, and dropped any requests where the Forest Service claimed they had no record of topics on file (like roads) or information that was provided the day before the objection call for Blackwater in March 2021.
The Forest Service's determination letter claimed:
“The basis for this denial involves comments made by you during a telephone
conversation with forest staff on July 14, 2021. During this call you indicated the
purpose for requesting this information was to, “be able to walk the ground to
recreate your work and double check your findings.” Based on this comment and the current ongoing engagement between the Forest Service and the public involving the collection of new and review of existing data as the project is implemented, it appears you intend to use this information for internal purposes only. This does not meet the fee waiver criteria set forth by the USDA FOIA Regulations."
In this justification, the Forest Service is essentially attacking the very right we have as citizens to request FOIAs in order to field check for mature forests and old growth, rare and listed species, possible restoration areas, possible road locations, and other ecological characteristics inside of a project area. The Forest Service is not infallible, and we've documented and reported their errors before.
Kentucky Heartwood has always shared information about our field work, hosted field trips, and informed citizens and federal agencies of issues or opportunities for better protection. This is not new nor some underhanded use of information for “internal purposes.”
The other concerning issue is that the Forest Service is claiming that at the time of our FOIA they were still in the process of “ongoing engagement between the Forest Service and the public involving the collection of new and review of existing data as the project is implemented…” The agency had not signed their Blackwater decision at the time of FOIA request. However, the Freedom of Information Act legislation does not include any specific language about when a FOIA may be submitted during the project creation process or risk paying fees.
This claim may actually bolster our larger concern that the Forest Service never wanted pre-decisional transparency about their plans for Blackwater. Not the location of roads, “restoration” sites, or specific areas where logging will occur. Post-decisional virtual show-and-tell presentations advertised on social media with this information certainly does not fulfill that public involvement process either.
Finally, it is important to note that the Forest Service recently fulfilled a large FOIA request for the South Redbird “Wildlife Enhancement” Project also on the Daniel Boone National Forest, which is a part of the Southern Region (R8). We asked for the exact same components for other projects. We went through a “clarification call”, and after a long wait, the Forest Service released that FOIA without charging a fee. What is so different about the Blackwater FOIA that they need to charge us?
To combat these bogus claims and fees, Ashley Wilmes, attorney and new executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, filed an appeal on your behalf. With years of experience in FOIA claims and lawsuits, we are confident the Forest Service will back down and fulfill their legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.
We are grateful for the Kentucky Resources Council's assistance.
If you are involved in federal lands protection work, please consider this as a warning. The Forest Service in Region 8 may be moving more and more in this direction.