Washington Law Review


Traditional Ecological Disclosure: How the Freedom of Information Act Frustrates Tribal Natural Resource Consultation with Federal Agencies

June 19, 2017 | 92 Wash. L. Rev. 937

Abstract: When a federal or state agency administers environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, the agency often consults with tribes. During these consultations, tribes often disseminate traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)—knowledge acquired by a tribe that is a mix of environmental ethics and scientific knowledge about tribal use. However, these consultations may be susceptible to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The purpose of FOIA is to inform the public. Because TEK often contains sensitive information about tribal social, cultural, psychological, and economic factors, tribes do not want this information available to those who are not members of a tribe. For example, a tribe may not want historic fishing sites to be disclosed to the public, but information on those sites could be useful for fisheries management. The combination of FOIA and tribal consultation results in a Hobson’s choice for tribes—take a seat at the environmental regulatory table and risk disclosing proprietary information or lose their seat at the environmental regulatory table. This Comment explores the dichotomy between the purposes of FOIA and the protection of tribal culture and knowledge. This Comment then examines the inadequacies of the current FOIA exemptions when applied to protecting tribal information. Additionally, this Comment looks to past attempts at providing legislative reform to protect tribal information and argues that legislative reform is the most appropriate course of action because it can provide a broader protection for tribes.

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