The impending sale of the National Archives at Seattle has been stopped by the Biden administration. What looked like a done deal 14 months ago is no more.
On Thursday, the Office of Management and Budget, which administers the federal budget and had approved the sale of the 10-acre Sand Point facility during the Trump administration, reversed course.
“Tribal consultation is a priority for this Administration … the process that led to the decision to approve the sale … is contrary to this Administration’s tribal-consultation policy, and I am accordingly withdrawing OMB’s approval of the sale of that facility,” Shalanda D. Young, the agency’s acting director, wrote in a letter.
The decision obviously pleased the coalition of tribes, historians and members of the public who made use of the archives.
Said Rhonda Farrar, of Kent, who has done extensive research at the center on her family’s Chinese and tribal ancestry, “It’s just such wonderful news. I had no faith in the previous administration. I’m just elated.”
Young’s letter was sent to the five-person, little-known Public Buildings Reform Board, created in 2016 to find what it deems excess federal property.
In January 2020 it became public that the board had decided the archives building here was among a dozen “high-value federal properties” to be sold.
The seven-decade-old structure had “a deferred maintenance backlog of $2.5 million,” concluded the board. Better to sell the 10 acres to housing developers to “generate the highest and best value.”
When the announcement to close the facility was made, board member Angela Styles, a government contracts lawyer based in Washington, D.C., said the board was “not required by statute to seek public input first.”
Adam Bodner, executive director of the board, said Thursday that after the OMB letter, it would not pursue selling the facility.
“We’re out of it. I don’t see the board having a role here. There’s no project,” he said.
On Friday, after being asked what its plan were for the Seattle facility, the National Archives and Records Administration’s media office responded, “The April 8 OMB 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 to find a solution that provides appropriate records storage space and a safe workplace for our staff.”
The OMB news follows a setback to the sale in court. In February, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour granted a preliminary injunction to stop the sale, noting the federal government could have avoided a “public relations disaster” if they had “displayed some sensitivity” to how the closure affected the Northwest.
Northwest tribes were part of a 14-month campaign to stop the sale that included a campaign led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in which 25 of the 26 members of the Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and Idaho congressional delegations asking OMB to stop the sale; a bill introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., targeting the sale; and a federal lawsuit by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson along with 29 tribes and various groups.
On Thursday, also because of the OMB letter, Brian C. Kipnis, assistant U. S. attorney here, said in a court filing that his office intended “to meet and confer” with lawyers for the groups that sued “concerning the implications of this new administrative action on the future course of this lawsuit . . .”
Lloyd Miller, an Anchorage attorney representing Alaska tribes in the lawsuit, said, “Complete vindication.” He said he expects a negotiation to dismiss the case.
Ferguson said, “I’m not spiking the football in the end zone today. I am concerned that they did not state that they will no longer move those archives. They could have said. That’s not complicated.”
Ferguson was referring to this portion of Young’s withdrawal of approval for the sale:
“Any effort to sell the Federal Archives and Records Center in the future, through any available and appropriate authority, must comply with at least two substantial requirements. First it must be preceded by meaningful and robust tribal consultation, consistent with the President’s January 26, 2021 Memorandum on Tribal Consultation. Second, it must proceed through the appropriate administrative process, based on a new factual record, and must comply with the attendant substantive and procedural safeguards of that process.”
Now he said, the future of the archives is moving from litigation “to the political realm.”
If the archives are to stay at Sand Point, long-deferred maintenance will have to be dealt with.
The National Archives said that bringing the facility up to standard would cost $52 million to $71 million, and it would cost $90 million to $92 million to build a new facility in the Seattle area.
Miller said that for a homeowner, such a dollar figure is massive.
But, he said, “These are not numbers that should frighten anyone. For military bases, federal buildings, this is standard fare.”
Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe in Kingston, said the tribes’ priority had been “to slow everything down.” The buildings board had speeded up the sale so it’d be a done deal this spring.
“We’re certainly willing to find common ground,” he said about the search for funding.
In a statement, Cantwell said, “The important thing is a consultation process will determine the needs of the community in accessing these resources. Any upgrade, repair, or relocation would require an allocation of resources through the normal authorization and appropriations process. OMB, under the Biden administration, has come to its senses.”
The government planned to move records to facilities in Kansas City, Missouri (1,840 miles away), and Riverside, California (1,200 miles away).
Set to be moved were the histories of 272 federally recognized tribes in this region, as well as all federal records generated in the Pacific Northwest, including military, land, court, tax and census documents. The collection also includes more than 50,000 original files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In Alaska, Judith Bittner, that state’s historic preservation officer, sounded quite happy about the decision.
For the tribes and others in Alaska who, before the pandemic, had traveled to Seattle to look up important records, the closure would have been a particularly devastating blow.
Back in 2016, the National Archives facility in Anchorage was closed, and millions of pages of documents were moved to Seattle. And now they’d be moved to the Midwest or California?
“Oh, we’re ecstatic. It’s the power of the grass roots. Somebody in Washington [DC] is listening,” Bittner said.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.