For Clark County residents investigating federal court decisions or tribal treaties or genealogy, the Seattle branch of the National Archives is an invaluable resource. There, interested parties can find historical information that is helpful for preparing a court case or researching a book or merely captivating amateur historians.
The same can be said for researchers from throughout Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho, with the archives serving as a repository for history from all four states. That access now is endangered, however, following a decision by the federal government to close the facility and move its millions of documents to either California or Missouri. That decision should be reversed, either through the power of a lawsuit or a compromise that moves the archives to another facility in the Seattle area.
In December, the Public Buildings Reform Board included the Seattle archives among a list of federal sites to be sold off. The board was formed in 2016 to assess federally owned facilities that are underused and could be sold, with financial considerations being the primary focus.
That makes sense. According to the 2018 Federal Real Property Summary, the federal government owns 111,442 buildings throughout the country, with nearly 4,000 of them deemed as underused. And the Seattle archives site sits on 10 acres of valuable land in the Northeast section of the city; given Seattle’s real estate market, the land could fetch a handsome price.
But the process that placed the Seattle archives on the list has been egregious. A total of four public hearings were held regarding the creation of the list, with one in Denver being the closest to Seattle. Stakeholders who benefit from the building were not asked for input and, in fact, were unaware of the discussion.
That has the office of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson looking into the matter. Notably, Ferguson’s office is 24-0 against the Trump administration in court, and he recently told KIRO Radio in Seattle: “The majority of those wins have not come on some big constitutional claim of due process or equal protection — it’s come because the administration violates something called the Administrative Procedure Act … that requires them to take certain procedural steps before they make changes to people’s lives and they simply don’t do it over and over and over again,” Ferguson said. “And that’s why they lose in court to us all the time.”
Congressional members from the Northwest also have taken note, with most of them (including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground) sending a letter to the Office of Management and Budget decrying the process that led to the decision. Closing the facility “would make research a logistical nightmare and far more financially burdensome than it already is currently,” the letter reads.
Moving valuable documents about the Northwest to far-flung locales would work to separate the people from their history, be it documents about Native Americans or the history of Vancouver Barracks or photos of Mount St. Helens before it blew its top. Most of that information is available only in person, with facility director Susan Karren estimating that “probably 0.001 percent” of the Seattle archive’s holdings have been digitized.
State officials and congressional members from throughout the Northwest should continue to press for a solution that keeps the archives within reach for Washington residents. Having access to our past is essential for understanding the present.