This photo shows the National Archives in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle that has about a million boxes of generally unique, original source documents and public records. In an announcement made Thursday, April 8, 2021, the Biden administration has halted the sale of the federal archives building in Seattle, following months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit by the Washington Attorney General’s Office. Among the records at the center are tribal, military, land, court, tax and census documents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

This photo shows the National Archives in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle that has about a million boxes of generally unique, original source documents and public records. In an announcement made Thursday, April 8, 2021, the Biden administration has halted the sale of the federal archives building in Seattle, following months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit by the Washington Attorney General’s Office. Among the records at the center are tribal, military, land, court, tax and census documents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Biden halts sale of National Archives center in Seattle

Tribes and members of Congress pushed for the halt.

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 Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell announced Thursday that the federal Office of Management and Budget had withdrawn its approval for the sale, which would have forced the transfer of millions of records to facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, and Riverside, California.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.

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of April 15

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

Rep. Sara Hannan (right) offers an overview of this year’s legislative session to date as Rep. Andi Story and Sen. Jesse Kiehl listen during a town hall by Juneau’s delegation on Thursday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Multitude of education issues, budget, PFD among top areas of focus at legislative town hall

Juneau’s three Democratic lawmakers reassert support of more school funding, ensuring LGBTQ+ rights.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of the Inupiaq village of Nuiqsut, at the area where a road to the Willow project will be built in the North Slope of Alaska, March 23, 2023. The Interior Department said it will not permit construction of a 211-mile road through the park, which a mining company wanted for access to copper deposits. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Biden shields millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness from drilling and mining

The Biden administration expanded federal protections across millions of acres of Alaskan… Continue reading

Allison Gornik plays the lead role of Alice during a rehearsal Saturday of Juneau Dance Theatre’s production of “Alice in Wonderland,” which will be staged at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé for three days starting Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
An ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that requires quick thinking on and off your feet

Ballet that Juneau Dance Theatre calls its most elaborate production ever opens Friday at JDHS.

Caribou cross through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in their 2012 spring migration. A 211-mile industrial road that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority wants to build would pass through Gates of the Arctic and other areas used by the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of the largest in North America. Supporters, including many Alaska political leaders, say the road would provide important economic benefits. Opponents say it would have unacceptable effects on the caribou. (Photo by Zak Richter/National Park Service)
Alaska’s U.S. senators say pending decisions on Ambler road and NPR-A are illegal

Expected decisions by Biden administration oppose mining road, support more North Slope protections.

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, speaks on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 13. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska House members propose constitutional amendment to allow public money for private schools

After a court ruling that overturned a key part of Alaska’s education… Continue reading

Danielle Brubaker shops for homeschool materials at the IDEA Homeschool Curriculum Fair in Anchorage on Thursday. A court ruling struck down the part of Alaska law that allows correspondence school families to receive money for such purchases. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Lawmakers to wait on Alaska Supreme Court as families reel in wake of correspondence ruling

Cash allotments are ‘make or break’ for some families, others plan to limit spending.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, April 17, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Newly elected tribal leaders are sworn in during the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s 89th annual Tribal Assembly on Thursday at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. (Photo courtesy of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)
New council leaders, citizen of year, emerging leader elected at 89th Tribal Assembly

Tlingit and Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson elected unopposed to sixth two-year term.

Most Read