Skip to content

Forest Service must disclose spotted owl maps

Post categories

  1. Freedom of Information
Forest Service must disclose spotted owl maps09/11/95 NEW MEXICO--The U.S. Forest Service must disclose its maps showing habitat areas of…


NEW MEXICO–The U.S. Forest Service must disclose its maps showing habitat areas of the Mexican spotted owl, named a threatened species in 1993 under the Endangered Species Act. A federal District Court in Albuquerque ruled in mid-August that no exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act protects the maps despite an internal agency rule limiting disclosure of information on the location of threatened and endangered species.

The Forest Service claimed that its regulation prohibiting release of habitat information to anyone without a permit to carry out “legitimate studies” was necessary to prevent harm. It argued that the FOI Act’s Internal Rules Exemption (Exemption 2) would apply, just as it applies to federal law enforcement manuals which enjoy Exemption 2 protection since their release could help others circumvent the law. Here, anyone with the maps could locate and harm the threatened bird.

But the court said it was “too much of a stretch” to say that the management maps would cast light on the agency’s practices and justify use of the exemption.

The court rejected the requesters offer to enter an agreement with the agency to protect the information. The FOI Act does not confer access on some but not other members of the public, it ruled.

Dr. Robin Silver of the Maricopa Audubon Society in Arizona filed a lengthy FOI Act request for the agency’s records on the spotted owl in the region covering New Mexico and Arizona in June 1994. The Audubon Society did not want the identity of core nesting areas, he said, but it wanted information on the agency’s owl management areas to help the public understand controversy surrounding the bird’s protection and also for independent analysis of the effects of the timber harvest program on the owl.

Silver sued after the regional forester denied the maps and the agency’s appeals officer failed to respond. (Maricopa Audubon Society v. U.S. Forest Service)

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.