Six months after the surprise announcement in January to close the National Archives at Seattle, the update isn’t good news for those who rallied to reverse the decision.
Despite letters from Northwest senators and representatives to Congress, and letters from tribes that the archives contained documents central to their history, there’s nothing to indicate the closure won’t go ahead.
No news sure sounds like bad news.
Nothing new from senators in the affected states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Nothing new to report from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, who had said in February that his office was prepared to sue if the closure was not “reconsidered and reversed.”
A spokeswoman for Ferguson says that “work on this is ongoing, although I don’t have anything substantive to report right now.”
Says Rhonda Farrar, of Kent, who has done extensive research on her family at the Sand Point center, and had been part of protests to close it, “The world is in such turmoil, we’re pretty small fry. I figure our issue is at the bottom of the pile.”
The archives here are the center of a good portion of the heart and soul of this region, at least as it pertains to federal documents.
Now those the nearly 1 million boxes of documents will at some point head from Seattle to Riverside, California, and Kansas City, Missouri.
The history of 272 federally recognized Northwest tribes is here. Various drafts of tribal treaties, too, important if, by mistake, what was listed in an early draft did not appear in the final version.
For the tribes and others in Alaska who, before the pandemic, had traveled to Seattle to look up important records, the closure will be 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
On July 20, Kevin Meyer, Alaska lieutenant governor, wrote that the records “are of special importance to Alaska due to the pervasive federal presence in the decades before statehood.” He said the records were crucial for “ongoing legal issues, property disputes, and policy.”
In the letter sent to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which has jurisdiction over federal buildings, Meyer said the Alaska records totaled 58,000 cubic feet, “roughly a football field, packed knee high — of papers, photographs and other materials.”
The National Archives has said it plans to digitize such records.
But Meyer said little progress has been made: “Less than one thousandth of the records are currently digitized.”
Judy Bittner, the Alaska historic preservation officer, says, “It’s an effort to get to the Northwest,” says Bittner about the added travel. And now to Kansas City? “It will take the material out of reach of most of those in Alaska.”
One ray of positive, if symbolic, news for those concerned about the surprise decision for closure came July 15 from U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal. The center is in her district.
She got included 163 words in the 113-page appropriations bill that’s going to committee before any full vote by the House.
In those 163 words, she says, “We’ve given voice to the frustrations that people have.”
Still, when asked if she felt the closure was a done deal, Jayapal says, “I think it’s a done deal.” But, for the future, “We don’t want this to happen again.”
The closure was done at the recommendation of a five-person federal group few had ever heard of — the Public Buildings Reform Board. It was created in 2016 to find what it deems to be excess federal property.
The board’s reasoning was that the 73-year-old building had “a deferred maintenance backlog of $2.5 million,” and that its annual operating and maintenance costs were $357,000.
Better to sell the 10 acres to housing developers, said the board.
When the January closure announcement was made, one of the board members, Angela Styles, said the group was “not required by statute to seek public input first.”
The wording Jayapal got included in the appropriations bill that would fund $3.5 million to the board basically asked the board not to ignore those affected by its decisions.
Jayapal said the board needs to “invite wider input” before making a decision.
And the proposed legislation also says the archives needs to maintain access to records at the Seattle center by groups such as the tribes, and report back to Congress on how it’s planning to do that.
Asked for comment, the National Archives media office emailed: “The National Archives cannot comment on pending legislation. Thank you for the opportunity.”
The closure date for the Sand Point is not imminent.
A Jan. 27 news release from the National Archives says, “We expect the entire process of sale to take approximately 18 months and we have requested to stay in the building for an additional three years following the sale.
So, plenty of time.
“The fight is still not over,” says Amber Taylor, historic collections management lead for the Puyallup Tribe.