FOIA lawsuit exposes National Park Service biased process during Golden Gate Recreation Area rule making; record of decision suspended
SAN FRANCISCO (January 9, 2017) – Representing dog and recreation advocacy groups, Morrison & Foerster has successfully halted a National Park Service (NPS) rulemaking that would have significantly reduced public access to Golden Gate National Recreation Area for people with dogs. Today, the NPS announced that a Record of Decision on the Recreation Area dog management plan – which would eliminate off-leash access by 90% and severely cut, and in most places, entirely ban on-leash dog walking – has been suspended until further notice.
Through a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the firm exposed deep flaws in the agency’s record keeping practices, bias in its collaborations with external groups, and its failure to conduct a fair planning process, Chris Carr, a partner with Morrison & Foerster and head of the firm’s Environment and Energy Group said. The NPS released a statement today that it “is conducting a review of the emails being released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent lawsuit seeking documents dating back to 1999 related to development of a dog management plan at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. We are putting on hold the signing of the Record of Decision and the publication of the Final Rule on Dog Management based both on recent Congressional requests and also completion of this review.”
Mr. Carr added, “The NPS dog management plan is plagued with legally significant procedural irregularities. The deliberate destruction of public records, failing ‘recollections’ of computer passwords necessary to access years of documents, and the use of private emails by NPS personnel have revealed a fatally flawed, fundamentally unfair, and unlawful decision making process. It’s unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to force the belated disclosure of emails that reveal just how biased and unlawful the GGNRA’s dog management planning process has been. We fully expect the next Director of the NPS will not allow this travesty to recur under his or her watch, if the rulemaking goes forward at all.”
Mr. Carr and Morrison & Foerster associates Tyler Welti and Navi Dhillon represent Save Our Recreation, SFDOG, Marin County DOG and Coastside DOG (of San Mateo County) in a lawsuit filed April 5, 2016, that seeks public records from the NPS Recreation Area about the dog planning process, including data about the number of Recreation Area visitors who walk with their dogs, documented impacts from dogs, and other information specific to open space sites such as Fort Funston in San Francisco, Muir Beach in Marin and Rancho Corral de Tierra in San Mateo County. Despite the overwhelming opposition of the public and Bay Area elected officials, who repeatedly called for significant change and balance during three public comment periods, the proposed dog management plan has changed very little from draft-to-draft during the past five years.
The Plaintiffs’ FOIA suit alleges that the NPS has failed to provide information and data used to determine its proposed restrictive rule for dog walking in the Recreation Area, which was formally proposed February 24, 2016. The agency closed the public comment period on the proposed rule on May 25, 2016, long before it had even begun to respond in a meaningful way to the Plaintiffs’ FOIA request. Throughout the summer and fall, the agency had been slowly releasing some of the public records requested. Nonetheless, on December 8, 2016 the government released the Final Dog Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement, and had indicated that, following a 30-day “no action” period, it intended to issue a Record of Decision and publish the final Dog Rule.
“In light of the fatal flaws in the dog planning process revealed by documents produced in response to Plaintiffs’ FOIA suit, NPS cannot lawfully issue a record of decision and publish a final Dog Rule,” Mr. Carr said.
Information obtained during the course of the FOIA law suit can be found at WoofieLeaks, a website created to give the public access to NPS documents related to the dog management plan for Golden Gate National Recreation Area by the Plaintiff groups.