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Bureau Of Land Management Decides It's Going To Be A Lot Less Receptive To FOIA Requests

The new administration's plan to undo everything Obama ever did (along with lots of stuff other presidents put in place) continues. Fighting leakers and multiple investigations, the Trump administration is steamrolling regulation by slashing through red tape and common sense with equal aplomb. This administration may have a reputation for inadvertent openness, but its new directives aren't so much draining the swamp as building a swamp in its own image.

The Bureau of Land Management is apparently viewed as the Fed version of Greenpeace. Previously-protected federal lands are being opened up for business, starting with the removal of environmental impact reviews. This should speed up the return of the government's land to certain people -- mining companies, the CBP's inland expeditions, wall builders, etc. This affects nearly 950 million acres of federal land. A raft of exclusions would make it easier for the Bureau of Land Management to manage land however it sees fit.

The package, which includes policy changes with immediate impact as well as regulatory and legislative proposals that would take more time to execute, would eliminate lengthy federal reviews in many instances through “categorical exclusions” if officials determine the activities have no environmental impact.

Such exclusions would cover everything from the BLM’s coal leases to efforts to euthanize wild horses and burros. Such an exclusion also would be pursued for “oil and gas wells that run horizontally from private wells into adjacent federal minerals,” according to the document.

But that's not the only thing the BLM is doing. As its power expands, it's working to scale back its transparency and accountability. J. Pat Brown of MuckRock noticed something else in the BLM's report on its post-Trump plans: an attempt to recraft existing FOIA law to deter records requests.

According to records obtained by the Washington Post, the Bureau of Land Management is recommending new legislation that would limit the number of FOIA requests individuals and agencies could file with the agency, create stricter criteria for fee waivers, as well as increased fees for “search and redaction.”

The BLM says it just doesn't have the budget for handling FOIA requests at the speed it used to. But that's obviously a huge misrepresentation of the facts. The BLM spent 0.2% of its $1.3 billion annual budget handling records requests, which is hardly an onerous amount. This is nothing more than an attempt to bypass its accountability to the public under the guise of federal agency belt-tightening. It claims answering requests "diverts resources" and hampers "decision-making processes," as though an integral part of government accountability were nothing more than a timesinking pain in the ass.

Capping requests from any entity or group is going to harm journalists and the downstream beneficiaries (the general public) of their reporting. This hard cap will probably affect corporations the most, as J. Pat Brown points out, but it's not as though the damage will be limited to well-funded participants in the FOIA process.

Federal agencies were never friendly to FOIA requesters under President Obama. But under Trump, they've become downright hostile. Granted, agencies like the DHS, FBI, and CIA were already openly hostile, but with Trump's revamp of multiple agencies, they've been joined by more generally-docile entities like the BLM and EPA. The more things are disrupted in DC, the more likely it is that federal agencies will circle the wagons. And it will be the taxpayers who are locked out, but still expected to foot the bill for antagonistic policies aimed at them.

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