In a move supported by Alaska’s congressional delegation as well as tribal governments in both Alaska and the Lower 48, the Biden administration has halted its predecessor’s decision to sell the federal archives building in Seattle.
The decision follows months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit.
Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell announced Thursday that the federal Office of Management and Budget had withdrawn its approval for the sale, which would have forced the transfer of millions of records to facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, and Riverside, California.
A federal judge had already temporarily blocked the sale, pending a lawsuit by Washington, Oregon and more than two dozen Native American and Alaska Native tribes, including the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
“The decision to close and sell the facility was made without engaging tribal, state and local officials,” said Tlingit and Haida President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson in a news release announcing the decision to join the lawsuit. “There were no public hearings or consultation where tribes could provide input and now the federal government wants to further remove these vital records from our tribes.”
Last month, 25 of the 26 members of Congress from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska signed a letter by Cantwell and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski urging the Biden administration to reverse course. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also signed the letter.
“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,” Murray said in a news release. “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.”
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in a statement he was pleased by the halt. Young said the Alaska congressional delegation collaborated to “defend this important educational institution.”
“This is a tremendous victory both for Alaska Natives and tribes across the Pacific Northwest,” Young said in the statement. “It is crucially important that before any sale of federal property can occur, consultation with tribes must take place; there is no evidence to prove that happened. The loss of Anchorage’s National Archives facility in 2014 dealt a devastating blow, not only to our Alaska Native communities, but to all Alaskans who utilized the extensive records held by the National Archives, including our veterans. Following the closure in Anchorage, Seattle became the closest location for Alaskans to discover their history through the National Archives and Records Administration. The prospect of losing the Archives in Seattle would deliver another blow to the people of our great state, particularly for those who have called Alaska home for thousands of years.”
The records at National Archives facility date to the 1840s and include documents key to the histories of 272 federally recognized tribes in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho. It houses all federal records generated in the Pacific Northwest, including military service, land, court, tax, marriage and census documents.
The documents also include records of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. There are 50,000 files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited the presence of Chinese laborers in the U.S. from 1882 until 1943, including photos and interrogations of Chinese immigrants.
Only a tiny fraction of the records have been digitized, and the facility is frequently used for research related to genealogy, land use and water rights, treaties and other historical topics.
Tom Wooten, chairman of the Samish Indian Nation near Anacortes, Washington, noted Thursday that tribes have often resorted to the archives to vindicate their treaty rights and their oral traditions. He has researched his own family history there, he said.
“This material is too important and too valuable to leave this area,” Wooten said. “You have to know where you come from. There’s no way folks could go to Kansas City or California to do that kind of research.”
The little-known Public Buildings Reform Board, which was created in 2016 to help sell off surplus federal property, decided in late 2019 to sell the National Archives building under the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act. OMB approved it in early 2020.
In a letter to the board Thursday, OMB’s acting director, Shalanda Young, said that approval was inconsistent with President Joe Biden’s direction that federal agencies engage in meaningful and regular consultation with tribes when it comes to decisions that affect them.
Any future sale of the facility would have to begin with a new process, including tribal consultation as well as a new factual record, Young said.
Given that the 74-year-old building has a multimillion-dollar maintenance backlog and that it sits on 10 acres of prime northeast Seattle real estate with water and mountain views, the federal government might well renew its plans to sell it to a developer.
But Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has argued that the Seattle archives is ineligible for sale under the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, which exempts buildings used for research in connection with federal agricultural, recreational or conservation programs. The archives are used for research under federal historical preservation programs and to litigate land use, water rights and conservation issues, the state’s lawsuit noted.
In a phone interview Thursday, Ferguson said the Office of Management and Budget’s reversal was inevitable after U.S. District Judge John Coughenour blocked the sale in February. He called the government’s decision to sell the property without consulting the tribes outrageous.
Cantwell said Thursday she hopes that in the long run the federal government can maximize the property’s value while also ensuring local access to the records.
“Hopefully we can come up with a more win-win situation, where we can keep the records in the Northwest and do it in a fashion that works for everybody,” she said.
• The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.