By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are beloved around the world for their unique thermal features, wildlife and scenery, so there’s never any shortage of passion over issues that affect how the parks and their resources are managed.
But those passions often lead to deep and long-lasting disputes that are sometimes fueled in part by ignorance and suspicion in the face of incomplete information and insufficient transparency about governmental processes.
Members of the public are always clamoring for details, for instance, about how decisions are made in managing bears, wolves and bison. Another issue currently in the news that begs for greater transparency is the decision-making process behind how the Congressionally mandated budget cuts known as sequestration will affect services in the parks, including when Yellowstone entry gates will open in the spring and why three visitor centers in Grand Teton won’t open this summer.
Compiling and evaluating full and complete information on these issues and other politically charged matters is seldom as easy as it should be. In fact, it is too often the case that the more controversial an issue is, the less all parties involved tend to share complete information with the public.
That tendency is often counterproductive when the parties involved are government entities such as city councils, boards of county commissioners, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies or any of the other government bodies that play key roles in the parks and surrounding gateway communities.
These agencies work for us, managing public resources and spending public dollars on our behalf. So while the law may not require government workers to tell us everything they know as soon as they know it, it does require them to turn over specific information to us when we ask for it.
Sunshine Week, which runs from March 10-16, is an annual nationwide celebration of press freedoms meant to foster greater government transparency. So this week, Yellowstone Gate is asking readers to play a larger role in demanding greater transparency and accountability from government bodies across the greater Yellowstone area.
Filing a state or local public records request or a federal Freedom of Information Act inquiry may seem complicated and daunting, but it’s not. More importantly, it shouldn’t be, and it is only when members of the public more frequently demand the very information they pay for that government entities will release more such data.
So take a few minutes to think about life in the greater Yellowstone area and what kinds of related public records, documents or government data you’d like to see.
Would you like to know more about how specific sequester-related park budget cuts were made? Maybe you want more information on how wildlife is managed, roads are maintained or public funds are spent. Are you curious about how special interests exert influence on the parks?
Yellowstone Gate is committed to learning more about these issues and others that directly affect how your public park lands and resources are managed. It is important to know how government agencies across the greater Yellowstone area spend money, make decisions, enforce laws and set priorities that leave lasting effects on the region’s people, wildlife and resources.
For instance, on Feb. 27, Yellowstone Gate filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request seeking public records relating to the 20-year Yellowstone concessions contract awarded to Xanterra Parks & Resorts. The request was filed not because of any concerns about the integrity of the process, but because scant information was released about the deal, which could easily amount to $2 billion in gross sales over its full term.
Conversations with a Xanterra corporate officer and a senior Yellowstone public affairs official yielded only basic details, and both individuals responded that they did not have access to some important information about how the contract was evaluated or awarded. That is partly because the National Park Service has not yet released full details on the contract pending a routine, required Congressional review, while some other information is protected under federal exemptions for proprietary business information. But there are still plenty of other details that can be—and should have been—released.
We want your ideas about what other park-related records you would like to see. So please take a few minutes to fill out the form below and let us know those areas where you want more public information. Or take our poll and select your top priority from among the options listed.
We’ll follow up at the end of Sunshine Week with details on how you voted and what ideas you shared. But more importantly, we’ll file public information requests on your behalf based on what we hear from you.
Ultimately, asking for public information is not as difficult as you might think. So if you really want to know something about how your government operates, check online for details on how to make a request from federal, Montana or Wyoming government bodies.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].