Bipartisan coalition pens letter calling for end to effort to close Seattle National Archives

Mar 11, 2021, 7:11 AM | Updated: 11:29 am
Seattle National Archives, Ferguson...
Seattle's National Archives Facility.(Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)
(Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

While lawmakers from both sides of the aisle can’t seem to agree on much these days, a bipartisan group of more than 20 U.S. senators and representatives from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska put their signatures on a letter asking the federal government to officially give up its effort to sell the Seattle branch of the National Archives.

Lawmakers addressed the letter to Rob Fairweather, Acting Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). It was sent Thursday, in response to last month’s court decision in Seattle that temporarily put a halt to the controversial sale.

Signatories include Washington’s two Democratic Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Among a total of 25 signers from Washington are Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, and Republican Representatives Jaime Herrera Beutler and Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Republican Representative Don Young of Alaska also signed on. The National Archives facility contains federal records – including priceless documents, maps, and photos – from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.

The letter reads, in part:

We strongly support the decision made by the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington to temporarily stop the sale of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Federal Archives and Records Center in Seattle, Washington. We ask that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) acknowledge the Court’s ruling and support the plaintiff’s position that the Seattle NARA facility cannot be sold and these vital records must remain in the Pacific Northwest. The process leading to the proposed sale of the facility under the Federal Assets and Transfer Act (FASTA) was legally flawed and importantly, OMB failed to consult with Tribal governments and organizations in violation of its own Tribal consultation policies.

The letter also describes a timeline of the flawed process, led by an obscure federal agency called the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), and points, in particular, to “the failure by the PBRB to consult with Tribal representatives.” A long-standing executive order, the letter continues, says that “all federal agencies are required to engage ‘in regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal officials in the development of Federal policies that have Tribal implications.’”

The lawmakers also reference earlier correspondence sent to OMB a year ago – during the Trump Administration – outlining their concerns about the hasty and secretive planned sale. They also lauded last month’s action by United States District Court Judge Coughenour to put the sale on hold as part of a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a broad coalition of affected groups.

“We agree with Judge Coughenour’s conclusions, which mirror many of the concerns expressed in our earlier letter,” the senators and representatives said. “We therefore respectfully ask that you take immediate action to reverse OMB’s prior approval of the sale of this facility by supporting the plaintiffs’ position.”

Late Wednesday, KIRO Radio reached out to Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who have both invested time and resources responding to the threatened sale.

In a written statement, Secretary Wyman said:

After months of concerted efforts, ceasing the impending sale of the National Archives in Seattle would surely be welcome news to so many throughout our region dedicated to preserving our state’s rich history. I appreciate lawmakers, Tribes, and the diverse group of stakeholders involved in these ongoing discussions for keeping this important issue at the forefront and for their efforts to keep these records local and accessible. As the office overseeing Washington State Archives, records and preservation management is a priority and we will continue working with our Congressional delegation, the National Archives and Records Administration, and other partners in ensuring our state’s archival treasures remain accessible and secure for generations to come.

Wyman sent her own letter last week to Washington’s congressional delegation, celebrating the temporary halting of the sale, and looking ahead to what comes next.

Wyman’s letter, reads, in part:

I applaud the judge’s ruling and believe this is an important step in preserving access to our region’s precious archives. With this decision comes a renewed opportunity for Congress to enact a long-term solution that will keep these records safe, secure, and accessible for researchers, historians, Tribes, and many others throughout the Pacific Northwest. During your consideration of potential options for these valuable and irreplaceable records, I welcome your collaboration with me and my staff at Washington State Archives, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State. As the office charged with storing and preserving our state’s archival treasures, Washington State Archives stands ready to lend our expertise and wealth of knowledge regarding preservation practices, our decades-long industry partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and the importance of the archives currently stored in the Seattle facility.

In a written statement provided to KIRO Radio on Thursday morning, Attorney General Ferguson said, “Thank you to Senators Cantwell and Murkowski and the Pacific Northwest delegation for their efforts. I hope OMB listens to them, the Tribes, and the hundreds of Washingtonians who took the time to offer public comments on why the National Archives are so important to our community.”

The only member of the Washington delegation – and the only senator or representative in any of the four states participating – to not sign the letter is Representative Dan Newhouse, Republican from Central Washington.

KIRO Radio reached out to Representative Newhouse’s office early Thursday. Staff provided copies of background materials from the National Archives describing use of the Seattle facility and notes about its need for upgrades, along a written statement from Representative Newhouse:

This is an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars. This is not a new issue – many of these records have been passed off to Seattle from a facility in Alaska, where they failed for years to digitize the collection. NARA should prioritize making their collection available online and more responsive to the requests they receive rather than spending $50 million to refurbish a wasteful, under-utilized building. These records, which are accessed significantly more by off-site requests than in-person visits, will still be just as accessible from Kansas City. There are parts of the collection that are important and culturally significant to the Pacific Northwest, including tribal maps, treaties, and Manhattan Project records. I believe there are far more efficient uses of federal funds to ensure these records are accessible to the public.

Even with the sale potentially shut down for good, there remains a need for significant funding to bring the Seattle facility up to date, and to ensure its future as a resource for tribes, historians, genealogists, students and others who depend on access to the materials preserved there.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Bipartisan coalition pens letter calling for end to effort to close Seattle National Archives