For a second time, a federal court has ordered the U.S. Forest Service to produce a broader range of documents concerning the proposed Village at Wolf Creek. And if Forest Service officials are smart they will fully comply. Revealing whatever might be in those files is unlikely to be more damning than trying to stonewall twice-validated Freedom of Information Act requests.
Critics who think they see in this the Forest Service conspiring with the developer are almost certainly off base. The Forest Service is well-regarded and typically does good work. That it touches so many people and is in the middle of so many issues naturally makes it controversial from time to time, but being responsible for respecting sometimes conflicting values and interests is not corrupt.
Failure to be fully transparent, however, is a sure way to raise suspicions. As U.S. District Court of Colorado Judge William Martinez put it, “The court sees no reason to excuse the Forest Service from its duty to perform a proper search.”
It is hard to see why the Forest Service would wish to be excused, and harder still to understand why it might think it should be. A lack of transparency may not be hiding something scandalous. It may be the scandal.
Environmental groups opposed to the proposed development filed a the Freedom of Information Act request in February 2014 and another, expanded request in November of 2014. The information sought revolves around a possible land swap between the Forest Service and Texas businessman B.J. “Red” McCombs, the man behind the Village at Wolf Creek proposal. Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas has since approved the swap, although the whole business is in court over what critics claim is a faulty Environmental Impact Statement.
The groups who made the FOIA requests did get a ton of documents from the Forest Service, but they said – and the judge agreed – that what was turned over was too narrowly construed. For example, it left out records from high-level officials, including the head of the Forest Service and the undersecretary of Agriculture.
Critics also say it missed the point. An attorney for one of the groups that submitted the FOIA request told the Herald, “We asked for all records, including administrative records, but they provided communications, which was not what we asked for.”
Some of what was released may not be what the Forest Service wanted seen either. The coalition says the documents released include instructions not to use email so as to keep the messages out of the reach of a FOIA request and to send messages by way of an agency lawyer to cloak them in attorney client privilege.
Those allegations are in themselves enough to warrant further investigation. Government transparency is not a game. And in a situation like this, it is crucial.
The Village at Wolf Creek was first proposed in 1986 and for 30 years it has been not only controversial, but inexplicable. Regardless of its environmental impact, to most observers it simply does not make sense. That also serves to raise suspicions. Add what look like attempts at secrecy to a scheme that does not add up and it is natural to wonder what is really going on.
The Forest Service should fully comply with the judge’s order.