Gallatin National Forest officials confirmed this month that they removed and destroyed thousands of documents pertaining to a $13 million land deal—known as the Royal Teton Ranch project—during routine file maintenance. Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) officials say the Forest Service used the Federal Records Act and Record Management Disposal Act to skirt a BFC Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed in June 2004 to access those very documents.
“Getting access to those records has been an endless bureaucratic quagmire,” said Darrell Geist, a research consultant working with the Buffalo Field Campaign. “We just found out that the [Gallatin National Forest] did in fact throw out records we were looking at. We have an outstanding FOIA request, and they destroy them. What does that tell you?”
Forest supervisor Rebecca Heath and lands manager Bob Dennee say the Forest Service provided BFC with thousands of documents Geist requested over the years.
“All of the documents that the Buffalo Field Campaign and Derrell Geist have requested to date have been provided to him at no cost,” says Dennee.
Dennee said less than one percent of the requested case documents were deemed exempt from the FOIA request by officials in Washington, D.C., and thus were withheld.
Heath stated in a June 1 letter that her department removed and recycled “relatively few” documents, such as duplicate documents, prior drafts of documents that had since been finalized and documents for which the retention period had lapsed.
Geist said BFC wanted access to those documents in order to understand the details and nuances of the 1999 taxpayer-funded land deal to acquire and conserve habitat for one of the largest migrations of native ungulates in North America.
“The public interest embodied in the Freedom of Information Act is to shed light on government activities,” says Geist. “That’s hard to do when the Gallatin National Forest decides to shred its files to stop a citizen inquiry into how our public lands are being managed and how taxpayer money is spent.”