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Feds reverse decision to sell historic archives in Seattle

The National Archives building Seattle.
National Archives
The National Archives building Seattle.

The Biden administration has halted its predecessor’s decision to sell the federal archives building in Seattle, following 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 Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell announced Thursday that the federal Office of Management and Budget had withdrawn its approval for the sale, which would have forced the transfer of millions of records to facilities in Kansas City, Mo., and Riverside, Calif.

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. 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.

“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.”

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.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who represents the Seattle area in Congress, joined with Murray and Cantwell in applauding this decision.

"This is not only a hard-fought victory for the tribal members, researchers, universities, and other advocates across the Pacific Northwest who have organized to stop this foolish sale and save our irreplaceable records, it’s also a victory for our entire region," Jayapal said in a statement. "I will continue working with tribal and state leaders, researchers, community members, my delegation partners in Congress, the Biden Administration, and anyone necessary to find a permanent solution so our archives, history, and culture never leave our region."