The Pacific Northwest’s history is secure in the attic, at least for now. The Biden administration last week called off the sale of the regional National Archives facility in Seattle. Now Congress should ensure this sort of debacle never happens again and that the current facility receives the repairs it needs to safely house its precious historical inventory.
Previously, the Office of Management and Budget had planned to close the archives facility at Sand Point, sell the Seattle land for development, and move the records halfway across the country, some to Missouri and some Southern California. The agency made that decision without consulting the public, tribes or historians. That would have been disastrous.
The archive holds primary documents, photos and artifacts that record the history of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. Historians, genealogists, attorneys, journalists and anyone with an interest in the region’s past rely on them. Among the most important were records from the region’s tribes that documented relations between the federal government and Indigenous peoples.
After some delay, the Biden administration finally canceled the sale and pledged that in the future it will consult tribal leaders. That’s great, but such promises last only as long as a president remains in office. Consultation ought to be codified so that no future president can bypass key stakeholders.
Enter Washington’s U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell who in March introduced the Federal Assets Sale Transfer Act with backing from both Oregon’s senators and one of Alaska’s. If it becomes law, federal bureaucrats would have to consult with affected federally recognized tribes before moving any archives.
That should be obvious, but apparently some bureaucrats need it in writing in the U.S. Code. Lawmakers should consider going a little further. Decisions that impact public access to archival materials should be made transparently and with opportunity for the public to comment, too.
Meanwhile, the question remains of what to do about the Sand Point facility’s deferred maintenance. The National Archives estimates that bringing the building up to standards would cost $52 million to $71 million.
That’s a lot of money, but it’s less than the cost of building a new facility and would be a pittance in a $2.3 trillion infrastructure-and-more spending proposal now under consideration. With congressional Democrats bringing back earmarks, allocating the money for this sort of specialized project becomes even easier.
And if the federal government invests in repairing and upgrading the archives in Seattle, it would serve as a disincentive to selling the facilities in the future. It’s much harder to make a case for shutting down a building after so much work.
The archives are safe for the moment. Congress should make them safe for decades to come.