On the Trail: The fight is on for government transparency

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A recently leaked memo advising the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withhold or delay the release of records requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that wildlife advocates say was from the Trump administration’s Justice Department drew headlines this month but certainly didn’t surprise any of us at Friends of Animals.

The memo directed staff to withhold or delay releasing public records regarding how the government is overseeing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Trump administration has launched a full-blown assault on the ESA with proposed policy changes that would require species-specific rules for every animal population, thus delaying timely protections and draining resources. Republicans in Congress have also introduced legislation that would gut the act.

We’ve been fighting it out with federal agencies in our FOIA efforts to obtain data on a plethora of wildlife issues ranging from who obtained permits from FWS to import African lion and elephant trophies to data regarding the import of pangolins to the U.S. 

Earlier this month, FoA’s Wildlife Law Program filed a lawsuit after FWS failed to release information on how many permits it issued in the past year and whether it made necessary findings to authorize the import of elephant body parts as trophies.

The population of African elephants, who are listed as threatened under ESA, has plummeted by 30 percent in seven years, with just 350,000 left in the world where once there were millions.

Another lawsuit by FoA regarding an FOIA request yielded data on U.S. hunters who received permits to import lion trophies from Africa who had donated to Republicans, Trump, or who had ties to Safari Club International. One of the 33 hunters who received a permit was Steven Chancellor, who raised more than $1 million for Republican candidates at a fundraiser at his home headlined by Trump and was appointed by Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to its new created International Wildlife Conservation Council, which is tasked with removing barriers to trophy hunting.

The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson and is essential to journalism, democracy and transparency. As a journalist, I’ve had many a fight with municipalities,

mayors, governors, state agencies and federal agencies to obtain information requested under FOIA in a timely and financially affordable manner. The last thing you want to do is have to sue. But increasingly, this is the only way to get information from the current administration. An Associated Press analysis found that the Trump government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records more often in 2017 than at any point in the past decade. FOIA requesters received censored files or nothing at all in more than 75 percent of the 823,000 requests, AP found.

This winter, the Washington Post discovered a Bureau of Land Management report that suggested the agency limit the number of FOIA requests from any one group and require more stringent justification for fee waivers. In June, aides to Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt told congressional investigators the agency delayed disclosure of documents requested under FOIA by choosing instead to respond to older requests that came in under the Obama administration.

It’s been a continual house of mirrors under the Trump Administration when it comes to wildlife policy information. Remember when Trump tweeted that he thought elephant slaughter was heinous? Then the Interior Department quickly weakened protections for them and secretly issued permits to U.S. hunters to bring their body parts back to hang on walls as trophies. But we wouldn’t have known that without FoA’s lawsuits compelling the release of this information under FOIA.

How many other species are imperiled by cloak and dagger policies hidden from the public?

After Trump was elected, the Post changed its masthead to include this important statement: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

Wildlife dies in darkness too.

We need to keep up the pressure for transparency. When it comes to Freedom of Information, we need to fight on.

 

Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions and contributing writer for The New York Times.