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Feds reverse decision and end effort to sell Seattle National Archives

The Seattle branch of the National Archives has been closed to the public throughout the pandemic; a bill introduced by Senator Patty Murray would end the federal government’s threat to sell the real estate and move the archives to California and Missouri. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

The federal government on Thursday officially ended its attempt to sell the 10-acre parcel and aging complex that houses the National Archives branch in Seattle’s Sand Point neighborhood.

“What’s happened today is the federal government has capitulated in our litigation,” Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson told KIRO Radio. “They are acknowledging that they cannot go forward with the sale of the archives facility here in Seattle.”

“So it’s a great day for those who want to preserve access to those records here in the Northwest,” Ferguson said.

In a letter to the obscure federal agency known as the Public Buildings Reform Board, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Shalanda D. Young formally withdrew OMB’s January 2020 approval of the sale of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility.

“I am writing to withdraw OMB’s January 24, 2020 approval of the sale of the Federal Archives and Records Center, 6125 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115. That facility was included in the Public Buildings Reform Board’s (Board) resubmittal of its high value property recommendation to OMB on December 27, 2019, pursuant to Section 12 of the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act of 2016 (FASTA).”

Sale of the NARA facility – and relocation of its priceless contents, including one-of-a-kind photos, letters, maps, and tribal documents from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska to NARA locations in California and Missouri – has generated bipartisan outrage and controversy in four states since KIRO Radio first broke the news in January 2020. NARA officials today declined comment, citing pending litigation.

However, in an internal message sent Thursday afternoon to all NARA employees and obtained by KIRO Radio, David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States and head of NARA, expressed relief that the OMB had withdrawn its support for the sale.

“I am happy to announce that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has cancelled the sale of the Seattle, WA, Archives and Federal Records Center (FRC) building,” Ferriero wrote.

“Today’s decision by OMB ends over a year of uncertainty for NARA and our staff at Seattle. We can now definitively say that NARA has a continuing need to maintain a presence in the Pacific Northwest, and we will continue to proudly serve the local community and other Federal agencies from our Seattle facility. Today’s announcement does not resolve our longstanding concerns with the building conditions in the Sand Point facility and the safety of the records stored there. We will continue to work with [General Services Administration] GSA to find a solution that provides appropriate records storage space and a safe workplace for our staff,” he continued.

“Thank you for your dedication to NARA’s mission,” the message concluded, “and a special thanks to our staff in Seattle for your patience as we worked to reach today’s outcome.”

Attorney General Ferguson pursued multiple legal actions against the Trump Administration beginning last year in an effort to block the sale, and his motion to delay it was granted in early 2021 by a federal judge in Seattle. Ferguson was joined in his most recent lawsuit by the State of Oregon, multiple heritage organizations, and dozens of tribes.

Ferguson doesn’t believe that simply a change in the leadership at OMB, as a result of the Biden Administration, had as much to do with OMB’s withdrawal as did his lawsuit.

“The only thing that finally stopped them was a federal judge saying ‘no, you can’t do that. That’s illegal,’” Ferguson told KIRO Radio. “That’s literally what it took. And so no, I don’t think they sort of had a moment of realization that they should do the right thing all of a sudden, not at all.”

The process by which the Seattle facility was targeted for sale was led by the Public Buildings Reform Board. It was clear all along that PBRB board and staff had failed to consult with any stakeholders, including historians, genealogists, educators and tribes – all of whom were equally blindsided by the news in early 2020. PBRB did not respond to KIRO Radio’s request for comment.

In her letter, OMB’s Shalanda Young mentioned PBRB’s failure to consult with tribes in particular as reason for withdrawing approval.

“Tribal consultation is a priority for this Administration. The President’s January 26, 2021 Memorandum on Tribal Consultation ‘charges all executive departments and agencies with engaging in regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal officials in the development of Federal policies that have Tribal implications.’ But the process that led to the decision to approve the sale of the Federal Archives and Records Center is contrary to this Administration’s tribal-consultation policy, and I am accordingly withdrawing OMB’s approval of the sale of that facility.”

Now that the imminent threat is gone, there still remains longstanding deferred maintenance issues with the Seattle facility.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the four states affected last month sent a letter asking OMB to reverse its decision to sell. In a press release today in the wake of OMB’s decision, Senator Murray said:

“While this process never should have begun in the first place without Tribal and local consultation, I’m glad that OMB has listened to local Tribes and reversed their decision to approve the sale of the Seattle Archive building, I want to thank everyone who made their voice heard throughout this process, and be clear I will continue working to ensure the generations of artifacts and history stored in the Seattle facility will remain accessible to stakeholders across the Pacific Northwest.”

Also weighing in Thursday were other officials who opposed the sale, including Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who in March helped organize the bipartisan congressional response. In a press release, Senator Cantwell said: “OMB, under the Biden administration, has come to its senses. It believes denying a population access to its historic records is wrong. I’m glad they are going to continue to allow Tribal communities to access this important information.”

Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, whose district is home to the facility, said in a press release, “I applaud the Biden Administration’s decision today to cancel the hasty and irresponsible sale of the national archives and records building, a treasure of histories so vital to so many people in the Pacific Northwest.”

Samish Indian Nation Chairman Tom Wooten told KIRO Radio that he was unhappy with the lack of consultation prior to the decision to sell, but he’s pleased with the ultimate outcome, and with what he sees as the Biden Administration’s commitment to working with tribes.

“I’m thankful that everybody pulled together and made it happen,” Wooten said. “And I’m just happy that Samish had a part in that. We were a full party in the lawsuit because we felt that that was the right thing to do.”

“I do believe in this administration’s willingness to work on issues and to have consultations with tribes and interested parties,” Wooten said. “I truly believe that we saw this in the Obama Administration as well, and to see that come back, it feels like a relief to me.”

With a look to what comes next, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who had been working behind the scenes to explore local solutions to the potential loss of the archives building, said in a statement that, “the effort to ensure these records remain local and accessible is not over. I encourage Congress to work with OMB on a permanent solution to keep these records in Washington, as well as with NARA and communities throughout our region on ways we can improve archive storage and preserve our state’s historical records for generations to come. It is imperative these groups are engaged and included in all future discussions.”

Attorney General Bob Ferguson agrees that it’s now up to Senator Cantwell, Senator Murray, Representative Jayapal and the other members of Congress to find the funding necessary to ensure that the materials preserved in Seattle are protected for decades to come – and that they remain in the Northwest.

“Our congressional delegation needs to find a permanent solution for these records for the archives to stay here in the Northwest,” Ferguson said. “Because, and this is very important, because when you read that letter very carefully in which they essentially acknowledge defeat, nowhere in that letter does it say ‘we promise those records will stay in the Northwest.’”

“As great as this victory is today, it’s incumbent upon our congressional delegation to find the resources to get the facility in the shape it needs to be in or find a new facility that can house these records,” Ferguson continued.

“That is the ultimate victory, but this is a big step along the way,” Ferguson said.

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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