By Keith Ridler, Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Documents possibly outlining legal justifications for President Donald Trump to shrink national monuments don't have to be provided to an Idaho environmental law firm because they're protected communications, federal officials say.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit from Advocates for the West seeking the information.
The environmental law firm filed a public records request for documents on the national monuments earlier this year, and the Justice Department released more than 60 pages in May.
The agency withheld 12 pages, however, contending they are protected by attorney-client privilege and intra-agency communication rules, making them exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.
"The FOIA request that is the subject of this lawsuit implicates certain information that is protected from disclosure by one or more statutory exemptions," the Justice Department wrote in the court document. "Disclosure of such information is not required."
Advocates for the West filed the lawsuit in Idaho's U.S. District Court last month, asking a judge to force the government to turn over the information that the group suspects makes a legal argument for shrinking national monuments.
"We believe there may well have been a new Department of Justice interpretation in order to provide them with cover, and that's what we're trying to get at," said Laird Lucas of Advocates of the West. "The top lawyers in the county advising the president on what the law says should be information that all of us get to review."
The monuments have been created under the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historic or geographically or culturally important.
National monuments that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended that Trump shrink include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, Nevada's Gold Butte and Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou. Zinke has also recommended that Trump shrink two marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean.
"We have never seen an event like this in the history of the Antiquities Act," said John Freemuth, a Boise State University environmental policy professor and public lands expert. "I don't think the normal rules apply anymore."
Freemuth said the interpretation of language within the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which deals with lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, would likely play a role in potential legal battles if Trump decides to shrink some monuments.
Whatever happens will likely be precedent setting for national monuments, Freemuth said.
The U.S. has more than 120, ranging from the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York to many others scattered across the U.S. West, including Bears Ears that covers 1.3 million acres.
Trump is expected to offer more details about his plans for that and other monuments when he visits Utah in early December.
If he announces a significant reduction in the size of a national monument, said Lucas, "I can assure you there will be one or more cases filed very quickly."
Those lawsuits could result in the Justice Department making public the documents Advocates for the West is seeking, he said.