The U.S. Interior Department has taken steps to restrict public records requests allowed through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The proposal would allow the agency to deny requests that it deems "burdensome" or "vague," and officials at the agency say it's necessary because FOIA requests are bogging down the department's work.
Jayson O'Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project, calls the move an attack on open public records and transparency.
"As our organization and others have found, there's been a clear link between special interests, industry interests and the work and the rule changes that have been done at Interior under this administration," he states.
Without access to government records, O'Neill says his group would not have uncovered documents showing industry requests for changes to the Greater Sage-Grouse Management Plan to tip the scale for oil and gas producers over ranching and other interests.
Interior Department officials also say the changes are needed because FOIA requests have been used for political reasons.
O'Neill says under previous administrations, Interior Department moves were made in an open and public process.
He says watchdog organizations such as his and the news media rely on the Freedom of Information Act when agencies aren't transparent in their decision making.
"Citing an uptick in requests when you're making decisions behind closed doors, that obviously is going to be the outcome because these affect our public lands, our wildlife, our waters - our way of life out in the West," O'Neill stresses.
The public has until Jan. 28 to comment on the Interior Department's proposal.
According to The Hill newspaper, due to the government shutdown, the agency isn't currently processing public comments.
Interior also is the only federal agency that has shut down online FOIA requests until the government reopens.