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Getting less transparent

As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke leaves office trailing a cloud of scandal for his lax attention to ethical behavior and use of public money, his former department is proposing changes to public records policies that could make it harder to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The proposed changes say the person making a FOIA request “must describe records you seek sufficiently to enable a professional employee familiar with the subject to locate the documents with a reasonable effort. Extremely broad or vague requests or requests requiring research do not satisfy this requirement.”

Then comes the clincher: “The bureau will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.”

One can only assume that defining what constitutes “unreasonably burdensome” will be up to the Department of the Interior. That’s not how the Freedom of Information Act is supposed to work.

The law sets out specific exemptions to disclosure, designed to protect personal privacy and classified information, among other things. It does not allow a government agency to refuse a request because it is too difficult.

The changes are open for public comment until Jan. 28. Concerned about transparency in the management of federal lands? Make a comment on the Federal eRulemaking Portal, regulations.gov, or write to Executive Secretariat — FOIA regulations, Department of the Interior, 1849 C St. NW, Washington, DC 20240. Refer to Docket No. DOI-2018-0017.