Why ask us to withdraw Freedom of Information Act request?

The city of Spearfish wants to build a crosswind runway at the Black Hills Airport-Clyde Ice Field to accommodate planes landing when winds are not conducive for landing at its main runway.

As required by law, the city, through its contracted firm, KLJ, conducted a survey for culturally significant sites.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) coordinates with several Native American tribes within the region, and at various times, 12 different Traditional Cultural Specialists were at the Spearfish airport for the assessment, representing five different Native American tribes.

Apparently 80 sites deemed culturally significant were discovered.

What are they?

We don’t know. 

Neither does the city of Spearfish. 

It is the FAA’s position that the discovery is between two nations — the USA and Tribal Nations.

So the Black Hills Pioneer submitted a Freedom of Information Act request June 18 related to the cultural assessment findings. We sought details about the sites — what they are, where they are, what tribes were involved, etc.

We then wrote an editorial stating that the city should be notified as to what and where the sites are to see if they can be mitigated for damage.

Soon after, Tony Molinari, an FAA public affairs officer, reached out to the Pioneer and said the information could not be released, citing the National Historic Preservation Act specifically pointing out Section 304, which he said states 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. 

But here’s the thing about those three bullet points: Would it significantly impede the use of the site by practitioners? 

No, it is an active airport.

Our own Jane Carlstrom, who works in the newsroom and who has lived adjacent to the airport for the past 70 years, said she has never once even heard of a religious ceremony being held there.

Would there be a significant invasion of privacy? 

No, again it is an active airport, which is visible from Interstate 90.

Could it cause significant damage to historic property?

That’s the kicker. The airport is hayed every year, first by a tractor cutting the grass, then one raking it into windrows, and finally another baling the hay. One more vehicle hauls the hay from the field.

Do those tractors cause significant damage to historical sites? 

Last week, Andy Peek, manager of the Dakotas/Minnesota Airports District office with the FAA, contacted Mark Watson, managing editor of the Black Hills Pioneer, asking if he would like to “withdraw” the Freedom of Information Act request, based on the agency’s feeling that the request would not be formally granted due to information being withheld subject to the National Historic Preservation Act.

Watson said that the Pioneer would not withdraw its request, and Peek said the FAA with provide information to the Freedom of Information Act coordinator by its deadline in late August. 

A newspaper should be able to go through the Freedom of Information Act process without being asked to “withdraw” its request. 

Time will tell what will be released — if anything. The threshold as to what should remain secret seems to be a very low bar. 

If a tribe objects to information being released — it does not appear as if the act has a standard for that — then the information may become secret.

We’ve asked for contracts. The FAA says they do not have them, and KLJ says there was no contract. 

We asked which tribes were consulted and who the cultural specialists were. KLJ would not release that, citing FAA guidance. 

If the sites deemed culturally significant include the proverbial ancient Indian burial ground, then the sites of course should not be disturbed. But if the site is something such as a single arrowhead discovered that may or may not be in its original position, that’s another matter.

But here is a flabbergasting thought: The National Historic Preservation Act does not dictate what a culturally significant site is.

Black Hills Pioneer,

Editorial board

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