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Washington AG Bob Ferguson sues to stop federal sale of Seattle National Archives

Jan. 4, 2021 Updated Mon., Jan. 4, 2021 at 9:12 p.m.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle in April 2019.  (Associated Press)
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle in April 2019. (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an attempt to stop the sale of the National Archives and Records Administration’s building in Seattle.

The building is home to a vast collection of historically significant documents from this region of the country. Notably, the documents include treaty and other records for 272 federally recognized tribal governments in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

If the sale goes through, the records would be transferred to facilities in other parts of the country, making them far less accessible to residents here.

The National Archives in Seattle constitutes “our DNA in the Pacific Northwest,” Ferguson said.

The Seattle facility also is home to records related to the internment of Japanese Americans and Chinese Exclusion Act case files.

Ferguson, who is joined by 40 other plaintiffs, said Monday his goal is to block the sale of the facility, which he said has been accelerated in recent months and has not included conversations with local, state and tribal officials.

“These federal agencies just don’t care,” Ferguson said in a news conference. “They’ve had plenty of opportunities to work with us, but they’re plainly not interested.”

The decision to sell the building was made after the Public Buildings Reform Board identified 12 facilities across the country as “high value assets” and recommended their sale. According to the board’s report, the archives building has a deferred maintenance backlog of $2.5 million. Relocating the archives center would make “10-acres of highly valuable land available, likely for residential housing,” according to the report. The sale also would “generate the highest and best value and return for the taxpayer,” according to the report.

Spread out nationally, the other facilities in the sale proposal included two excess land sales at job corps centers, a fisheries science center, a veterans affairs medical center, a federal courthouse and an office building, among others.

In October, board officials decided the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on commercial real estate made for an accelerated sale of these properties, including Seattle’s National Archives building, according to a release from Ferguson’s office. The buildings are set to be sold early this year, a decision Ferguson said went under the radar for two months.

“We didn’t think we’d have to work on such an accelerated timeline,” Ferguson said.

If the sale is completed, the records would be moved to archive centers in Missouri and California. Only .001% of the facility’s 56,000 cubic feet are digitized.

“The tribes really value having these materials close to us,” Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port S’Klallam Tribe, said. ”It verifies things we’ve talked about in our oral histories over the years.”

The archives include:

  • Records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including Spokane’s agency;
  • Federal Court Records, including the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in Spokane;
  • Records from the Bureau of Land Management offices in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington;
  • Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files.

The archives have also been useful in learning more about business and land ownership, travels to and from China, Japanese reparations, and Japanese, Filipino and Chinese Americans who served in World War II, said Connie So, president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, Asian Pacific Advocates – Greater Seattle Chapter.

The range of materials housed in the archives is “vast,” Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, said. Moving them would be a loss to the entire Pacific Northwest.

“We can’t even put a price tag on the value of what those archives house for those tribal nations,” Sharp said.

The 40 other plaintiffs in Ferguson’s suit include 29 federally recognized tribes, community organizations, historical preservation societies and museums and the state of Oregon. The 29 tribes include the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

“The Seattle National Archives Facility maintains thousands of historical records that belong to the Yakama Nation and our Members,” Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Delano Saluskin said in a statement. “The United States has both legal and moral obligations to keep those records in the Pacific Northwest where we can easily access them.”

Ferguson called it the “broadest coalition” in any of his previous cases against the federal government.

In his lawsuit, Ferguson argues a facility that is used for research in connection with federal agricultural, recreational and conservation programs is exempt from an expedited sale. That means the archives building should have never been legally included in this sale.

He also argues the Office of Management and Budget failed to develop standards, criteria and recommendations required by Congress. The federal government also failed to consult with tribal governments, violating federal-tribal consultation law.

Ferguson said there is hope that a Biden administration may change the course of the sale but he has not been in talks with the new administration yet, as his primary focus is on filing this lawsuit and stopping the sale as soon as possible.

He said he has been in contact with Washington’s congressional delegation.

“I’m hopeful with a new administration, there will be a change in priorities,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson already has filed four individual Freedom of Information Act suits.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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