Court action compels Air Force to release Owyhee Airspace records
10th of Oct 2023
Advocates for the West filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to compel Mountain Home Air Force Base to release public records as required by law. The records relate to the Air Force’s proposal to expand and intensify military aircraft trainings over the Owyhee Canyonlands of southwestern Idaho, southeastern Oregon, and northern Nevada.
Advocates for the West is representing the Idaho Conservation League (ICL) in the FOIA suit. The Air Force’s failure to provide the requested records is preventing the general public from learning critical information about the “Owyhee Airspace Optimization” proposal.
“No one—not even the Air Force—is above the law in our country,” said Lizzy Potter, Staff Attorney at Advocates for the West. “This lawsuit merely asks the Air Force to comply with FOIA’s requirement that the requested documents be produced in a matter of days or weeks, not months or years, and free of charge to a public interest organization like ICL.”
“Fast jets flying as low as several hundred feet above the ground would have serious impacts for southern Idaho communities, wildlife, and wilderness areas,” said John Robison, Public Lands Director at ICL. “The public has a legal right to know about a federal agency’s actions impacting our public lands.”
The Air Force proposal to expand and intensify military training flights over the Owyhee Canyonlands from the Mountain Home Air Force Base includes low-level supersonic and subsonic fighter training exercises over Wilderness Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and key habitats for iconic sage-grouse and bighorn sheep, impacting the quiet and solitude of the region, its rural communities, and recreation values.
The requested documents will shine light on the Air Force’s analysis of how expanded training operations will disrupt wildlife, recreationists, and traditional uses in the Owyhee Canyonlands. ICL submitted the FOIA request five months ago, in May 2023, and has yet to receive the records sought, even though FOIA requires an agency to produce documents promptly.
As a public interest nonprofit, ICL has requested a fee waiver for producing records related to the proposal. FOIA requires agencies to provide records without charge “if disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.”
The Air Force initially agreed with ICL and granted a fee waiver but subsequently reversed course, claiming—without support—that ICL had a commercial interest in the records and must pay a hefty bill to obtain them. The Air Force’s position is unreasonable because ICL is a nonprofit without a monetary interest and is seeking the requested documents to further the public interest.