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Forest Service cannot withhold names of permit holders

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Forest Service cannot withhold names of permit holders 01/12/98 IDAHO--The U.S. Forest Service cannot withhold names of individuals who hold…

Forest Service cannot withhold names of permit holders

01/12/98

IDAHO–The U.S. Forest Service cannot withhold names of individuals who hold leases, permits or licenses authorizing them to use Forest Service lands, a federal District Court in Boise ruled in mid-December.

The court allowed the agency to withhold personal addresses but required it to disclose the town of residence of each named individual.

After the Forest Service began withholding all information about named individual permit holders, Idaho county assessors complained to the State attorney general that without the information, they were no longer able to assess property taxes on taxable improvements on federal tax-exempt public lands. Idaho law requires assessors to identify and tax the improvements on these lands made by lessees and permit holders.

In March 1997 the state filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the names and addresses with the agency’s regional offices in Missoula, Mont., and Ogden, Utah, which manage Forest Service lands in Idaho. Both offices denied the requests, saying disclosure would pose unwarranted intrusions on personal privacy.

The state then sued for the information. Just as a property manager would not keep the names of tenants secret from a landlord, a federal agency managing public lands cannot keep the names of tenants from the public, which owns the lands, it argued.

The court ruled that public’s interest in the names outweighs privacy interests because disclosure will “shed light on” the way that the agency carries out its duties.

It said that the Forest Service must issue permits only to users who comply with air and water quality standards and who minimize damage to scenic, aesthetic and fish and wildlife values. It cannot issue secret permits based on the power and influence of the applicant.

The court said public knowledge of the names will aid in determining if improper influence is used or if permits are granted to persons with a past history of environmental abuse.

Disclosure of the city of residence will prevent mistaken identifications without causing the privacy intrusions that could result from disclosure of street addresses, the court said.

Matthew McKeown of the state attorney general’s office said that assessors are able to use the information without disclosure of the street addresses and so will not appeal the federal government’s denial of the addresses. (Idaho v. U.S. Forest Service; State’s Attorney: Matthew McKeown, Boise)