A Montana organization that has been dogging Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for ethics violations is opposing the Interior Department’s attempt to destroy select documents.

In September, it was revealed that the Interior Department sent a request to the National Archives & Records Administration to allow the destruction of a massive number of records, including paperwork on oil and gas leases, mining, dams, wells, timber sales, marine conservation, fishing, endangered species, non-endangered species, critical habitats, and land acquisition.

As the public comment period closed this week, Whitefish-based Western Values Project submitted a letter opposing the destruction of any records belonging to the department, which has reversed course on many public land policy issues – from sage grouse conservation to shrinking national monuments to allowing methane flares from fracking operations.

“This is pretty rich coming from someone who claimed he would run the most transparent Interior Department in his lifetime. But as Ryan Zinke’s future remains in question, we are not surprised by his attempt to rewrite history,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project executive director. “It’s unacceptable that Interior is already turning their efforts to destroying documents when they can’t even respond to the public records requests they have coming in.”

More than 130 of Western Value Project’s 171 FOIA requests are outstanding, according to Saeger. Out of the almost 40 requests that were returned, WVP has used the information to file 10 lawsuits, most related to Zinke’s possible ethics violations.

It’s not uncommon or illegal for agencies to destroy records. The process of making a Request for Records Disposition Authority to the NARA is a decades-old way for federal departments and agencies to dispose of antiquated or unnecessary paperwork.

Alternatively, if agencies consider the documents important enough to be kept permanently, they are transferred to the National Archives.

But factors determining whether or not documents are destroyed could be subjective. And while the NARA is required to assess requests, it has rarely, if ever, rejected one. That’s what bothers organizations concerned with government transparency.

Once approved by the NARA, the request is publicly announced in the Federal Register, but not which documents are being deleted.

Citizens must ask to see the details and then they have 30 days to appeal the destruction of any document. Inquiries about the obscure process are rare.

In this case, some people did ask and found that the Interior Department’s request would erase a huge amount of possibly valuable information. It would destroy existing paper and digital documents going back more than 50 years.

But even more alarming is the request that the proposed destruction apply to all future documents created in the highlighted categories, many related to the Endangered Species Act and leasing for mining, oil and gas.

The National Archives extended the 30-day comment period to Nov. 26, after learning it had sent inaccurate information to those who requested it. So Western Values Project took advantage of the extension to submit its rationale for opposing the document dump.

“WVP discovered Secretary Zinke's use of a secret calendar to schedule meetings with industry groups, including Peabody Energy, the International Association of Drilling Contractors, and Dominion Energy, omitted from the official calendars. These efforts to hide meetings with industry groups, combined with Interior's failure to fulfill many of WVP's FOIA requests, demonstrate a culture that allows for corruption at the expense of America's public lands. Giving Interior permission to destroy its records would only push the agency further into the dark.”

The NARA will now consider the comments, but in this highly unusual situation, a decision date is unknown. The Interior Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.