Nature-lover or not, almost every child in America can recognize Smokey the Bear, the iconic ursine emblem of the U.S. Forest Service. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of efforts to recycle paper, or to prevent wildfires. When it comes to educational material and campaigning — things the Forest Service wants the public to know — communication is free-flowing. But it isn’t always that easy with the USFS; in fact, they are one of the most secretive agencies environmental reporters will encounter.
The U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, oversees 193 million acres of forest, grasslands, wetlands, and lakes, including private, public and tribal lands. The agency, led by Chief Tom Tidwell, is organized into 9 regions, each with its own FOIA contact. The USFS is responsible for preventing and responding to forest fires, managing over 1,000 campgrounds, and conducting research on ecosystems and climate change. It seems like there shouldn’t be a problem requesting documents and data related to these topics; as past SPJ President and current FOI Committee Chairman David Cuillier put it, the USFS doesn’t exactly protect national security secrets. But for some reason, the agency has been shutting the media out, forming a rift between scientists and journalists.
The USFS’s recent failure to provide material pivotal in journalist Rhiannon Fionn’s investigation of drinking water contaminants led to the agency being ‘awarded’SPJ’s 2014 Black Hole Award. Fionn told SPJ that she attempted to interview an expert USFS scientist for her story over the course of a year, but was repeatedly redirected to public information officials and eventually told she could only do a scripted interview, which would be reviewed by the Office of Ethics in Washington D.C. Fionn refused, calling the agency’s behavior overt censorship and a threat to the public’s right to know.
The problem is, Fionn is not the only journalist who has encountered this roadblock. Four years earlier, Society of Environmental Journalists member Christy George shared a similar experience. As George was sitting down to interview a USFS scientist from Oregon, he received a phone call from the head communications official in D.C., ordering him to end the interview. There was never any explanation, George says, even though she had requested the interview days earlier and gotten it pre-approved by his supervisors. Read about her experience here.
Photographers, videographers, and documentarians were further threatened by imprecise wording on a set of rules from 2014 that would require a $1,500 permit for shooting projects on National Forest Wilderness land. Although aimed at commercial companies, journalists and other media groups feared for their First Amendment rights and protested for a specific exclusion. Chief Tidwell sent out a memo to agency leaders reaffirming journalism as a public service and giving the green light for news coverage “including, but not limited to breaking news, b-roll, feature news, news documentaries, long-form pieces, background, blogs, and any other act that could be considered related to news-gathering.” Encouraging, but the real issue is the weak and ineffective media policies that make this kind of miscommunication possible.
The Center for Science and Democracy agreed in their 2015 Government Transparency report , shaming the Department of Agriculture as a whole with C- in media policy, and a D in social media. The USDA has not updated its general communications policy since 2003, the report says, and falls short of providing access to drafts and revisions, the explicit right of last review, and whistle-blower protection. “‘Loose lips sink ships’ appears to be management’s motivation.” — one anonymous USDA scientist says regarding the agency’s social media policy, which also stifles scientists’ rights to discuss research and hold personal views.
One doesn’t need to try too hard to find examples of Forest Service’s shortcomings. While the up-to-date budget performance information is explicitly listed right under the agency’s “about” tab, the other reports about regulations and policies were unavailable; the page listed as “under construction” when I attempted to access it earlier this week. As for the USFS FOIA site, it either has not been updated in a while, or all of the “frequently requested reports” are truly from 2008.
By no means does this suggest journalists should give up on requesting information from the Forest Service. But it helps to have some background information on the agency’s track record and to be prepared for common challenges faced in making a FOIA request. Here are some important takeaways from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Freedom of Information report.
– The USDA receives about 20,000 FOIA requests per year, 10 percent of which are for the Forest Service. In 2014, the Forest Service received 1,939 new requests. Of those 1,939 requests, 1,889 were processed. Yet only 825 (45%) were granted the full requested information, 601 (32%) were partially granted, and 248 (13%) were either withdrawn or referred to other agencies or departments.
– Reasons for denials: The most popular denial reason during 2014 was cited as “no records.” The most frequently cited FOIA exemption was Exemption 6, which deals with personal privacy interests. The Forest Service claimed that the information was protected because it dealt with ownership of historic and/or archaeological resources.
– Processing time: The average time to process a simple request is 27 days, whereas more complicated requests take about 50 days. Expedited requests are processed within 30 days (the average being 13 days). Backlogs are common, the ten oldest outstanding requests are between 2 and 3 years old.
– Resources: From 2010 to 2013, the Forest Service maintained a staff of about 75 full-time FOIA employees. But in 2014, the number of staff suddenly dropped to 25. Processing requests cost the agency anywhere between $2.5 and $3 million per year from 2010 to 2013, although litigation fees never surpassed $6,000. However, last year, $25,000 was spent on litigation, whereas only $70,000 was spent on processing requests.
– Record Keeping: The USDA adopted a new internal online database in 2011 to keep track of public records requests. This information is used to submit to the Department of Justice for their annual report and to record and determine the status of FOI requests. Anyone can submit a written request for information pertaining to themselves and their individual request.
The USFS FOIA Service Center can be contacted at 14 Independence Ave SW, Mailstop 1143, in Washington D.C., via fax to 202-649-1167, or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you have a Forest Service experience to share? Tweet @amayrianne or email email@example.com.