While plow crews are opening vehicle access to Glacier National Park, park officials have cut off public access to certain information about accidents in the park.
On June 2, the Daily Inter Lake reported that park officials will no longer provide names, ages or hometowns of people injured, killed or rescued in Glacier.
According to the park’s acting information officer, Dave Dahlen, Glacier supervisor Mick Holm approved the park’s new policy in November.
The decision was made in reaction to a failed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Salt Lake Tribune. The Tribune had been trying to get the names of two juveniles who died in accidents in national recreation areas in Utah. In that case, a Department of Interior appeals officer rejected the newspaper’s appeal, citing privacy concerns.
In reaction to the Utah case, Dahlen says, Glacier has decided to “err on the side of protecting the victim’s right to privacy” until told otherwise by National Park Service officials.
But according to Mike Meloy, an attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Act hotline, the Utah decision doesn’t set any legal precedent for Glacier.
“It’s a policy they were not obliged to follow,” Meloy says.
FOIA, he says, has provisions allowing for a victim’s information to be withheld for privacy reasons, but allowing for its release when the public interest so demands.
Typically, Meloy says, parks have handled the release of sensitive information case by case, weighing the victim’s wishes against the public’s right to know about accidents, deaths or rescues that involve public officials spending public money on public property.
Glacier, according to Meloy, appears to be the only national park to have adopted such a strict policy.
But Meloy points out that reporters can still find such information indirectly. Typically, names, ages and hometowns of victims are made public by sheriffs or highway patrol officers who investigate incidents in the park.
“If you try hard enough, you’ll find a way to get the information,” Meloy says.