Federal land managers face lawsuit over River Democracy Act records

July 5, 2022
Federal land managers face lawsuit over River Democracy Act records

Federal land managers are facing a lawsuit alleging they violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to release documents about the River Democracy Act in a timely manner. Nearly 4,700 miles of rivers and streams in Oregon would be federally designated as “wild and scenic” under the bill, which critics fear would restrict logging and grazing, among other activities.The legislation was introduced by Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who say the bill would shield property rights from adverse effects while tripling the number of river miles with “wild and scenic” protections in the state. In September, Wyden said the bill was written specifically not to interfere with existing property, grazing and water rights.

Federal land managers testified about the bill before a congressional subcommittee last year, which prompted a public records request from the Western Resources Legal Center, a legal education nonprofit that trains law students seeking to represent oil and gas interests, farmers, ranchers, timber companies, water users, mining companies, tribes, and other businesses.“To date, we have not been provided with any information and therefore resorted to legal recourse under the Freedom of Information Act,” said Caroline Lobdell, the organization’s executive director.“

The public should not have to wait for the proposed permanent designations to occur before they are allowed to understand the legislation,” she said in an email. Testimony at the hearing indicated government officials have an “enhanced understanding of the process, basis, and potential impacts” of adding waterways to the Wild and Scenic River System, according to the legal center’s lawsuit. For example, the testimony included information about how many river miles and surrounding acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management would be affected by the bill.

According to the Western Resources Legal Center, information from the hearing explained that government officials “spent significant time analyzing” the legislation’s “effect and methods of enforcement,” including the need to develop “comprehensive river management plans” that guide how it would be implemented, according to the legal center. The legal center wants to access that information to better explain the River Democracy Act to the public and its constituents, such as farmers and ranchers, who may “rely on public lands for their livelihood.” In late October and early November of 2021, the center submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for records pertaining to the River Democracy Act, including congressional communications related to the hearing.

No determinations regarding the requests have yet been made by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or their government overseers — the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Interior Department — even though legally mandated deadlines have passed, the complaint said. In light of the “months-long delay” and “lack of communication,” the plaintiff believes the government “seeks to hide records from the public” regarding its interpretation of the bill, the complaint said. The federal agencies had not yet responded to requests for comment about the lawsuit as of press time.

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An aerial view of a body of water.