Controversy in Cascadia

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A rushed federal building sale could restrict access to critical regulatory documents in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

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A plan to close the National Archives and Records Administration’s Seattle facility threatens Pacific Northwesterners’ access to federal government records. The closure and sale would move documents concerning federal actions in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska to new locations hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from the Pacific Northwest.

The proposed plan, announced last year as part of a broader Trump Administration effort to reduce the federal government’s property portfolio, would move physical records to facilities in Missouri and Southern California, making government records about the Pacific Northwest effectively inaccessible to those living in the region.

Archival staff have reportedly digitized only one-thousandth of one percent of the Seattle facility’s holdings. Moving the documents to new locations would only further delay the digitization process.

The documents are practically, as well as historically, significant. For example, the Seattle facility houses Bureau of Land Management records dated from 1850 to 2011—for a region that includes more than 16 million acres of public land.

The facility’s Bureau of Indian Affairs holdings range from tribes’ governing documents, demographic records that often remain determinative of Indian legal status today, and treaty and property documents critical to settling land disputes.

The Seattle National Archives site may have been selected as a target for closure because it presents a valuable real estate opportunity for private investors. The facility sits in Seattle’s Windermere neighborhood, just two miles from the University of Washington, about six miles from Amazon’s corporate headquarters, and less than eight miles from downtown Seattle.

A federal report claimed in 2019 that selling the Seattle facility “will make 10 acres of highly valuable land available, likely for residential housing” in the city. A member of the federal Public Buildings Reform Board suggested in October 2020 that the plan could create a new source of tax revenue.

Elsewhere in the federal government, legislators have voiced concern about the expedited plan to move the Pacific Northwest’s federal records out of Seattle. A spokesperson for U.S. Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) reportedly expressed frustration that only one federal legislator—U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), whose district includes the site—received any notice about the sale plan.

A bipartisan coalition of legislators from both the House and Senate also coauthored a letter expressing doubt about the “net financial benefit” of the sale. These members of Congress highlighted the effects the plan could have on “current litigation, tribal membership and land claims, Forest Service timber sales, land claims and disputes, the navigability of federally owned waters, ongoing scientific research, and much more.”

Representatives of tribal interests have also decried the government’s attempt to move their records out of the region. David Z. Bean, chairperson of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, wrote a letter denouncing the move by highlighting the historical and present legal significance of the Puyallup tribal documents housed in Seattle. Bean also criticized the fact that the federal government apparently did not consult with impacted tribes as required by Executive Order 13,175—nor did it even notify interested tribes of the planned sale.

Other critics of the sale have also noted that the site holds not only formal documentation critical to tribal governance and record-keeping, but also tribal histories critical to maintaining cultural integrity. In addition, Alaskan Native communities would have to travel even further to access their records after losing local access when the Anchorage National Archives facility closed in 2014.

In particular, the Seattle facility’s holdings relating to land allotment and treaties between the federal government and tribes are critical resources that help determine the jurisdictional boundaries of Indian Country—where tribal and federal law may apply in place of state law. As recently as the summer of 2020, such documentation helped the Muscogee (Creek) Nation regain previous guarantees of tribal control over much of modern Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In addition to concerns about archival access, legal controversy has bogged down the federal government’s expedited attempt to close and sell the Seattle facility. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit alleging that the federal government illegally expedited the sale of the property and did not properly consult with local stakeholders.

As of early 2021, at least 29 tribes, the State of Oregon, and several interested community organizations had joined the suit as co-parties. On February 23, 2021, Judge John C. Coughenour of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington reportedly blocked the property’s expedited sale.

With the arrival of the Biden Administration, the Seattle National Archives facility may now be spared. President Biden has demonstrated his willingness to revisit other controversial executive actions taken by the Trump Administration, such as a U.S. Department of Labor rule broadening the definition of an independent contractor and a U.S. Department of the Interior rule weakening protections for migratory birds. A reversal of the planned sale of the Seattle facility might well loom in the future.