FAA rejects Freedom of Information Act request — for now

SPEARFISH — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has rejected the Black Hills Pioneer’s Freedom of Information Act request seeking numerous items pertaining to a cultural assessment conducted recently at the Black Hills Airport-Clyde Ice Field.

The cultural assessment at the airport was conducted as required by law for a proposed crosswind runway construction.

During that survey, 80 sites deemed culturally significant were discovered in the location after 12 different Traditional Cultural Specialists were at the Spearfish airport for the assessment, representing five different Native American tribes. The FAA’s position is that the nature of these sites – what they are, and exactly where they are, is a matter between two nations — the USA and Tribal Nations.

On June 18, the Black Hills Pioneer submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking maps, reports, etc., for the sites discovered at the airport. Additionally, the Pioneer sought contracts between the FAA and any Tribal Nations and companies conducting the studies.

On July 26, the FAA mailed a certified letter to the Pioneer in response to the request.

“At this time, FAA is withholding all maps, reports, individual and specific descriptions of each discovered site deemed culturally significant and other documentation of culturally significant sites at the airport totaling 394 pages under Exemption 3 of the FOIA, pending the determination described below,” according to the letter.

The letter, written by Jim Keefer, acting director of the Airports Division for the Great Lakes Region of the FAA, cited Section 304 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which states that the information should not be publicly disclosed to the public if it could significantly:

• result in damage to historic property,

• result in a significant invasion of privacy,

• or may impede the use of a traditional religious site by practitioners. 

However, Keefer writes, under that same section, the FAA must consult with the “Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places,” an official within the National Park Service. That keeper, “will determine who may have access to the information, (in whole or redacted form).” The keeper is not specifically identified by name or title however.

Keefer wrote in his letter to the Pioneer that the FAA has initiated this consultation process and will keep the Pioneer apprised of the keeper’s determination.

Additionally, the FAA rejected the Pioneer FOIA request for contracts, as “the FAA does not have any contracts between the FAA and any Tribal Nations or companies conducting the survey and, therefore, no responsive records exist.”

The Pioneer plans to appeal the FAA’s rejection of the request and will continue to follow the story.

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