Posts Tagged ‘Society of Environmental Journalists’


Are we out of the woods yet? The FOIA fight with the U.S. Forest Service

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.

Regional Offices of the US Forest Service, http://www.fs.fed.us/

Regional Offices of the US Forest Service, http://www.fs.fed.us/

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.

Email correspondence between journalist Rhiannon Fionn and USFS scientist Dr. Dennis Lemly, as published in Coal Ash Chronicles.

Email correspondence between journalist Rhiannon Fionn and USFS scientist Dr. Dennis Lemly, as published in Coal Ash Chronicles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Center for Science and Democracy's 2015 Report: Grading Government Transparency: Scientists' Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies, http://www.ucsusa.org

The Center for Science and Democracy’s 2015 Report: Grading Government Transparency: Scientists’ Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies, http://www.ucsusa.org

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 wo_foia@fs.fed.us.

Do you have a Forest Service experience to share? Tweet @amayrianne or email amayrianne@spj.org. 

http://www.fs.fed.us/

http://www.fs.fed.us/

Know NOAA: Freedom of information story ideas from the air and sea

“NOAA reaches from the bottom of the sea to the surface of the sun, and touches every aspect of our daily lives,” a 40-minute introductory video (found online) instructs new agency employees. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posts an incredible amount of its employee expectations and administrative orders online, although locating the information requires patience, curiosity, and a deep dive though hyperlinks and sister sites.

But NOAA makes sure FOIA is something its employees learn about early on. Transparency is one of the few policies that has its own site: complete with training and tutorials for employees, contacts for the media, (actual FOI officers, not just media relations) and the verbatim administrative order complete with a list of descriptive terms and detailed information of who can reject an FOI request, and why.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator since March 6, 2014, reaffirms NOAA’s policy to open information in an introductory video.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator since March 6, 2014, reaffirms NOAA’s policy to open information in an introductory video.

In 2007, NOAA implemented a new rule closing the gap between scientists and the media. DAO 219-1, gives researchers and scientists explicit permission to share the results, aka “Fundamental Research Communications” of scientific and engineering research with the public, without prior NOAA approval. This includes media interviews, DAO 219-1 states, which can, but don’t have to be, approved and facilitated by public affairs. All information must be “on the record,” although employees can decline the initial interview.

For newshounds, it would seem as though NOAA had thrown a bone to the dogs. But even five years later, the Society of Environmental Journalists noted despite the open information policy, there were problems with additional policy guidelines and a lack of enforcement.

“That guidance document itself is problematic. Section 8, ‘Official Communication with the News Media,’ requires advance approval by the public affairs office whenever NOAA staff scientists give interviews or otherwise make statements about their work. The policy further generally requires public affairs officials to sit in on all interviews unless other arrangements are approved by the public affairs staff.These sorts of limitations on scientists’ communications with the news media (and through the media, the public) are simply unacceptable in a free society.” 

NOAA responded, stating an intention to work with counsel at the Department of Commerce (which oversees the agency and implements the DAO) to determine whether changes would be necessary. The most current version is here.

But here’s one issue with NOAA: There’s too much information, at least too much to sift through to find an easy answer to my preliminary question. As an environmental journalist, what can I learn from them? What kind of information do they provide, and what kind of stories can I write using the information? The bottom of the sea to the surface of the sun…it’s kind of a wide range. So what does NOAA actually do?

noaa.gov

noaa.gov

According to Administrator Sullivan and the NOAA intro video, NOAA’s purpose is to

  • maintain commercial fishing so fisherman can maintain a livelihood (includes aquaculture)
  • keep environment clean (through work with the US Coast Guard during oil spills)
  • maintain natural resource damage assessments, which assess damage and issue regulations regarding natural resources such as shorelines, vegetation, fisheries, animal life
  • collect remediation from responsible companies to restore environment after oil spill
  • provide climate forecasts to help agriculture determine which crops to plant and when
  • monitor hurricanes and extreme weather events and notify and prepare communities
  • help satellite operators prepare for disruption during solar weather forecasts
  • protect endangered species
  • protect life and property and enhances national economy
  • monitor aquatic areas for pesticide levels
Organization of NOAA's Departments, from noaa.gov

Organization of NOAA’s Departments, from noaa.gov

Recent stories citing NOAA include updates oil spill near Santa Barbara, Calif., and Greenwire’s expose of seafood fraud in aquaculture. But if there’s one thing NOAA has, it’s a wealth of climatic, environmental and economic data, including easily overlooked resources like satellite imagery and arctic ice report cards.  The potential for stories is endless, and maybe it’s impossible to cover them all. See the chart below for publication dates and your own story ideas.

NOAA/NCDC Climate Data and Services Daily
NOAA/NCDC World Ocean Database Quarterly
NOAA/NCDC Earth System Monitor The Earth System Monitor is a free publication that reports on NOAA environmental data and information programs, projects, and activities. We no longer have a mailing list. However, you can subscribe to the ESM RSS feed and be notified immediately when the e-version is published. Semi-Annually
NOAA/NMFS Fishery Market News Quarterly, Monthly, Weekly and Daily
NOAA/NMFS U.S. Foreign Trade in Fishery Products Monthly and Annual
NOAA/NMFS Recreational Fisheries Statistics Annual
NOAA/NMFS Commercial Fisheries Statistics Annual
NOAA/NMFS Fisheries Statistics of the US Annual
NOAA/NOS CO-OPS Tides and Currents Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NOS Web Mapping Portal to Real-Time Coastal Observations and NOAA Forecasts Daily
NOAA/NWS NOAAWatch
(NOAA Storms and Hazards Portal)
Daily
NOAA/NWS Weather Forecast Four times daily: 4 am; 11 am;
4 pm; & 10 pm (local time)
NOAA/NWS Warnings, watches, alerts & advisories Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Graphical Forecasts Daily
NOAA/NWS National Maps Updated twice daily
NOAA/NWS National Radar Mosaic Sectors Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Air Quality Forecast Guidance Shows Air Quality Guidance as 1-hr and 8-hr ozone concentration averages for the N.E. US updated twice daily.
NOAA/NWS Preliminary Climate Data Daily
NOAA/NWS Hydrologic Observations and Forecasts Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS) network Daily
NOAA/NWS Graphical Airman ‘s Meteorological Advisory (G-AIRMET) Updated every 6 hours as required by forecast aviation hazards
NOAA/NWS Hourly Multi-Sensor Precipitation Estimate Web-Based Service Hourly
NOAA/OAR National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Daily

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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