Forest Service Offers Partial Response to FOIA Request

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – The U.S. Forest Service says it has provided a “second partial response” to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Missoula County, but is withholding information exempt from disclosure.

County officials concerned about road-easement discussions that occurred privately between Plum Creek Timber Co. and the Forest Service filed an FOIA request during the summer.

In a letter dated Sept. 18 and posted Monday on the county’s Web site, the Forest Service said information being withheld consists of “internal deliberations, opinions, recommendations and drafts” exempt from disclosure.

The agency said an exemption applies partly through a federal provision intended to encourage frank discussions, prevent premature disclosure of proposed policies and protect against “public confusion that might result from disclosure of reasons and rationales that were not ultimately the grounds for an agency’s action.” In addition, some information was withheld to shield a government employee’s personal e-mail address, the Forest Service said.

The agency said it provided the county 89 pages of information on July 28 and recently found another 24 pages related to the request for information. Of those 24 pages, 13 were withheld entirely and 11 were withheld in part, the agency said.

The 11 released in part have been posted on a Forest Service Web page, the agency said, but Deputy Missoula County Attorney D. James McCubbin said he was unable to access that site on Monday.

The Forest Service said more information is being gathered and will be released once the agency determines the most efficient and cost-effective way to electronically scan some 65,000 pages.

The decision to withhold information may be appealed.

McCubbin said he will monitor the Web page for information the Forest Service said is newly posted, and a decision about the county’s next step will come after that information is viewed. He also said the county needs a better understanding of the type of information withheld.

Outside of the FOIA process, the county recently received easement information from Plum Creek.

The private talks of concern led to a tentative easement amendment that county officials say could foster development of Plum Creek lands in remote areas, perhaps increasing demand for costly public services such as fire protection.

Plum Creek and Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, say the company traditionally has had use of Forest Service roads in Montana to access Plum Creek timberlands for any legal purpose. County officials find that conclusion overly broad.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.