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Federal Charge of $25,280 to Fulfil Records Request Angers Activist

Officials, accused of trying to stonewall Freedom of Information Act inquiries, say work is too great to waive charges.

January 08, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management answers about 100 Freedom of Information Act requests a year in California, usually without charging fees for its services.

So it came as a shock to Sierra Club representative Edie Harmon of San Diego to learn recently that it would cost her group $25,280 for the BLM to provide the information she had sought in seven FOIA inquiries about off-road vehicle activity in California desert land managed by the agency.

At first, she laughed out loud, she said. Then she got angry. That was more than 10% of the annual budget of her San Diego Sierra Club chapter and, according to conservation groups, the latest evidence of a Bush administration policy to avoid answering questions from environmental groups about its management of public lands.

"It's an outrage; I think they're trying to stonewall us," Harmon said. "I've never had to pay one penny for the FOIA requests I've filed in the past."

BLM officials said that the fee is fair given the work, which involves rooting out a couple of thousand pages of agency documents.

"When people make blanket requests, it can be surprising how the costs start adding up," said BLM spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian. "For Edie's request, we think that is a fair estimate of what it would cost to complete the work involved."

The Sierra Club plans to appeal the bureau's denial of a fee waiver in Harmon's case, and incorporate it into a lawsuit filed in March against the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM.

In that lawsuit, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society and the Alaska Wilderness League accused the Interior Department of illegally denying FOIA requests by environmental groups.

In their suit, the groups said that the problem began with a memorandum issued by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in October 2001, reversing an earlier Clinton administration policy of granting FOIA requests from such groups.

Essentially, Ashcroft informed agencies throughout the federal government that the Justice Department would defend decisions to deny information under FOIA.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are arguing that environmental groups are bearing the burden of FOIA denials.

Before then, the suit argues, environmental groups, as well as educational institutions and news media, were routinely charged only for duplication costs, but not for the costs of searching for and reviewing requested documents.

"I've not heard of any other groups than environmental organizations running into this problem," said David Bookbinder, Washington legal director of the Sierra Club.

Under the Clinton administration, unless there was "a really good reason for not releasing requested information, the presumption was in favor of prompt disclosure, along with a waiver of fees," Bookbinder said.

"FOIA is designed to open government agency action to the light of public scrutiny," said Ted Zukoski, project attorney for the conservation group Earthjustice. "Information is power. The Bush administration's policy of making public information more difficult to get is taking power away from the people."

Harmon could not agree more. Over the past week, she has been sending fellow environmentalists BLM's fee estimates -- $19,440 for 900 hours of search time; $5,580 for 300 hours of clerical work; and $260 for 2,000 duplicates of pages.

She also has forwarded the agency's stated reasons for denying a fee waiver.

The BLM said Harmon's FOIA requests did not adequately explain how disclosure of the information would contribute to the public's understanding of BLM operations. The agency also said her requests failed to present her own "qualifications and expertise to disclose the information in an informative manner to a broad audience."

The 59-year-old co-chairwoman of the desert/Imperial County subcommittee of the Sierra Club's San Diego Chapter, begged to differ. She said she has been commenting at public hearings and in environmental impact reports related to federal land projects ranging from gold mines to landfills for nearly three decades.

"The BLM knows exactly who I am," she said. "I filed the same FOIA format I have in the past without any problems. Something has changed."

She also said her request was not extraordinarily broad although it included all written material, travel route maps, photos and communications relating to off-road vehicle groups and the BLM in western Imperial County, as well as wilderness monitoring reports and law enforcement logs for the area dating back to 1993.

She said her quest for information grew out of years of frustration with what she described as the agency's failure to curb "appalling damage caused by ORV vehicle activity on public lands."

"I see this denial of a fee waiver as an admission that the BLM either destroyed the records we want," she said, "or is attempting to make sure the information doesn't get out."

Bedrosian offered another explanation: "She wants every record we have, which would take an incredible amount of time to produce."

In any case, BLM officials said, waiver denials related to FOIA requests are rare in California, occurring about twice a year.

Among those rare denials was one two years ago in response to a request quite similar to Harmon's.

An environmental group asked for all BLM written information relating to California deserts from 1976 on.

"Edie Harmon's came in second in terms of the enormity of the requests presented to BLM over the past three years," said agency spokesman Tony Staed.

But Bookbinder said, "Edie is not asking for every scrap. She's asking for about 2,000 pages of specific information the agency should have readily available."

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