In December, the National Park Service was poised to implement a new dog policy for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, or GGNRA. The new policy would have severely restricted access at popular dog walking sites such as Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, Muir Beach, and Rancho Corral de Tierra.
But on the day they had planned to sign the new dog policy into effect, NPS officials instead announced an indefinite delay in the implementation. The decision came as the agency reviews a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request that shined a spotlight on government misdeeds over the handling emails over the issue.
In 2015, a coalition of four dog and recreation groups representing all three counties with GGNRA land—Save Our Recreation, San Francisco DOG, Marin County DOG, and Coastside DOG of San Mateo County—sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the NPS seeking documents related to the development of its proposed dog plan. That plan would reduce off-leash access throughout the GGNRA by 90 percent and significantly cut on-leash access as well.
When the NPS had still not released many of the requested documents nearly a year later, lawyers from San Francisco’s Morrison Foerster law firm sued the agency for violating FOIA.
As a result, the NPS finally began releasing the requested documents. The coalition that filed the lawsuit has made all documents available on a website called WoofieLeaks.com. While the name may be cute, the contents are troubling and raise serious legal issues.
For example, in numerous internal emails, GGNRA staff members referred to people with dogs as “rattlesnakes” and showed disdain for members of the public and elected officials who challenged their plan. In another, a GGNRA biologist suggested that scientific information supporting a less-restrictive dog plan be left out of an environmental impact statement.
Disturbingly, in another WoofieLeaks document, a senior official directed staff to delete emails about the dog plan: “These conversations are best done by phone.”
Perhaps the most troubling revelation was that more than one GGNRA official used private email accounts to conduct official business on the dog plan, apparently to circumvent FOIA’s disclosure requirements.
For example, one senior staffer (who served as the GGNRA FOIA Officer) used his private email account to improperly coordinate with special interest groups opposed to dog walking to drum up public comments and support for the GGNRA’s preferred proposal when the agency was supposed to be impartially analyzing alternatives. He may have also engaged in prohibited grassroots lobbying by advising those groups on how to communicate with a member of Congress.
Revelation of these private emails—which resulted because of the FOIA lawsuit—forced the NPS to delay the final dog rule indefinitely while it conducts an investigation of the emails and their impact on the development of the dog rule.
Dog advocates argue strongly that the emails are proof that the process used by the NPS to develop its new dog plan was unfairly biased against dog walking. The agency’s collusion and active engagement with only one side in the debate—those opposed to dog walking—significantly taints the entire process.
Any dog rule that comes out of this supremely flawed process is also fatally tainted and can never be lawfully adopted and implemented. We are convinced the NPS will arrive at that same conclusion if its investigation is truly impartial and not just a whitewash of the agency’s misdeeds.
This is by no means over. The NPS could decide soon to move forward with the restrictive dog plan that it has been pushing for nearly 20 years. But if it does, lawyers for the dog groups will challenge it—and bias and collusion revealed in the WoofieLeaks documents—in court.
But for now, doomsday in the GGNRA has been postponed with no time frame for when it might be rescheduled.
So, take your dog for a celebratory walk on the beach or coastal trails. Enjoy the GGNRA as you’ve been doing for decades. And check out WoofieLeaks.com to see the documents for yourself.Portions of this article first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. Sally Stephens is an animal, park, and neighborhood activist who was part of the group that pursued the FOIA lawsuit. She has been fighting the GGNRA’s dog plan for more than 15 years. She is the chair of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group, or SFDOG.
Main article photo by: Photo by Mark Sebastian-Creative Commons