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Agency Confirms It Destroyed Files from $13,000,000 Land Conservation Agreement in Yellowstone

For Immediate Release:
Thursday June 23, 2005

Contact:
Darrell Geist, Darrell Geist & Associates (406) 531-9284 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Dan Brister, Buffalo Field Campaign (406) 726-5555, dan"at"wildrockies.org

Bozeman, Montana - Gallatin National Forest officials have confirmed that they removed and destroyed public records sought by bison advocates in a $13,000,000 land conservation and wildlife protection agreement near Yellowstone National Park.

Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), a nonprofit bison advocacy group based near West Yellowstone, Montana has been researching government files since June 2004 to gather information on land use within the Yellowstone bison herd's native and historic range.

"We want to know what records the Gallatin National Forest destroyed, " says Dan Brister of the Buffalo Field Campaign. "What we do know, from the records we have been able to see, is that six years after this land agreement was finalized the Forest Service has failed to come up with the Bison Management Plan called for in the agreement."

Approval of a Bison Management Plan would open up critical winter range for Yellowstone's native migratory bison herd.

American taxpayers funded the $13,000,000 land deal in 1999 to acquire and conserve habitat for one of the largest migrations of native ungulates in North America: wild bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Habitat is also present for threatened species including grey wolves, grizzly bears, bald eagles and Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

The land is situated in a wildlife corridor along the Yellowstone River in the Gardiner Basin of the Gallatin and Absaroka mountains just outside Yellowstone National Park.

The land deal includes the purchase of land and a conservation easement. Devil's Slide conservation easement encompasses 1,508 acres of habitat. 5,262 acres of land on the Royal Teton Ranch were acquired from the Church Universal and Triumphant.

Gallatin National Forest officials blocked access to its Royal Teton Ranch files in late February of this year and canceled a visit arranged to review public records with Ken Britton, District Ranger for the Gardiner Ranger District. 

The group was informed March 30 by Bob Dennee, Lands Staff for the Gallatin National Forest, that he had removed files from the Royal Teton Ranch project record at the agency's offices in Bozeman and Gardiner. A June 1 letter from Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Rebecca Heath confirmed that the agency had indeed destroyed files sought by Buffalo Field Campaign.

The agency says it was simply following procedures under the Federal Records Act to remove non-essential, duplicate, or relapsed records. However the group had been seeking and reviewing the records through the Freedom of Information Act since June 2004.

"The public interest embodied in the Freedom of Information Act is to 'shed light' on government activities," says Darrell Geist, a research consultant with Darrell Geist & Associates. "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."

Freedom of Information Chronology

JUNE 2004 - Buffalo Field Campaign files a Freedom of Information Act request for Gallatin National Forest (Bozeman office) records on the $13,000,000 Royal Teton Ranch land deal.

JULY 2004 - Gallatin National Forest refers records requested by Buffalo Field Campaign to the Northern Region headquarters for further review, and to attorneys for Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Church Universal and Triumphant for their review and response.

AUGUST 2004 - Regional Forester Abigail Kimbell (Northern Region-US Forest Service) withholds releasing records stating that Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Church Universal and Triumphant desired that documents be withheld.

SEPTEMBER 2004 - Buffalo Field Campaign files a Freedom of Information Act request for Gallatin National Forest (Gardiner office) records on cattle grazing allotments on the Gardiner Ranger District and the Royal Teton Ranch land deal.

OCTOBER 2004 - In response to Buffalo Field Campaign's June Freedom of Information Act request, Regional Forester Abigail Kimbell withholds "land appraisal and land exchange documents" under the agency's deliberative process privilege.

OCTOBER 2004 - Buffalo Field Campaign appeals the Regional Forester's decision to withhold records on the Royal Teton Ranch land deal to the US Forest Service's Washington DC office.

NOVEMBER 2004 - In response to Buffalo Field Campaign's September Freedom of Information Act request, Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Rebecca Heath withholds records "generated by private parties" for "further review and response" by Northern Region headquarters and private parties involved to identify any "concerns over their release".

DECEMBER 2004 - Washington office of the US Forest Service grants Buffalo Field Campaign's appeal and releases documents withheld under the agency's deliberative process privilege.

FEBRUARY 2005 - Buffalo Field Campaign is denied access to the Royal Teton Ranch files on a visit to the Gallatin National Forest's Bozeman office. A visit arranged to inspect files at the Gardiner Ranger District office is canceled by Bob Dennee, Lands Staff and Steve Christiansen, FOIA Officer in consultation with the Regional and Washington offices of the US Forest Service.

FEBRUARY 2005 - Washington office of the US Forest Service grants Buffalo Field Campaign's appeal and releases documents withheld under the agency's deliberative process privilege. The agency redacts information from a 1981 memo to the Gallatin National Forest Supervisor.

MARCH 2005 - Regional Forester Abigail Kimbell redacts information deemed "confidential" the release of which "would compromise current negotiations." The agency also withholds an unspecified number of records under their deliberative process and attorney-client privilege, and redacts information from to protect "privacy interests".

MARCH 2005 - Buffalo Field Campaign is informed by the Gallatin National Forest that its officials removed and '"recycled" files from its Bozeman and Gardiner offices on the Royal Teton Ranch land deal. The group's representative is allowed to review what remained of the project files in the Gallatin National Forest's Bozeman and Gardiner offices.

APRIL 2005 - Buffalo Field Campaign files a Freedom of Information Act request for records remaining in Gallatin National Forest files on the Royal Teton Ranch land deal.

APRIL 2005 - Buffalo Field Campaign appeals the Regional Forester's decision to delete information and withhold records on the Royal Teton Ranch land deal.

MAY 2005 - Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Rebecca Heath refers records requested by Buffalo Field Campaign to the Northern Region for further "review and response".

JUNE 2005 - Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Rebecca Heath states the records the agency removed from the Royal Teton Ranch files "have been recycled and are no longer available."

JUNE 2005 - The Washington office of the Forest Service notifies Buffalo Field Campaign that its appeal of the agency's decision to delete information and withhold records on the Royal Teton Ranch land deal was referred to lawyers for the Church Universal and Triumphant and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and a former CUT official "to identify portions of the records that could cause substantial competitive harm if released."

 
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Organized by BFC campaign seasons, which follow buffalo migration patterns each winter.

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