Woofieleaks and the Lawsuit That Stopped the Dog Management Plan
In July 2015, having been told that the draft rule for a Dog Management Plan would be released in the fall, SFDOG and other dog and recreation groups submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to GGNRA staff asking for documents concerning their efforts to restrict where you can walk with a dog in the GGNRA. We did not think the Park Service had made a compelling case in the environmental impact statements that they had to restrict dog walking in the GGNRA. We wanted the documents so we could conduct an independent review of their process and their rationale for imposing the new restrictions.
Because previous FOIA requests made by SFDOG had been ignored by GGNRA staff, we asked our attorney, Christopher Carr, then a partner with the law firm Morrison Foerster in San Francisco, to submit the request on our behalf. The groups who were party to the request were SFDOG, Coastside DOG of San Mateo County, Marin County DOG, and Save Our Recreation.
GGNRA staff responded that the requested documents would only be produced if we paid a fee of $6000. Our attorney explained that asking a nonprofit to pay such a high fee in connection with a FOIA request that is clearly subject to a fee waiver was improper and offered to submit additional information to address the Park Service’s concerns. NPS staff refused this offer and demanded we either pay the fee or submit a new request.
To avoid further delay, we agreed to submit a new FOIA request in which we narrowed the scope of some of the documents requested (per the request of the GGNRA FOIA Officer) to reduce the claimed burden on the Park Service. The Park Service later conceded that we were always entitled to the fee waiver and, ultimately, no fee was charged.
We submitted the revised FOIA request on November 24, 2015. But Park Service staff did not bother to respond to our request by December 28th, the date by which they were legally required to respond.
After the first of the following year, our attorney received numerous promises of dates when the requested information would be given to us. Those promises were repeatedly broken. In the meantime, the GGNRA dog management draft rule was released on January 28, 2016, and, as expected, the proposed rule severely restricted where you could walk with a dog in the GGNRA. We still had not received any of the documents we requested in order to review and analyze the Park Service’s claims of impacts and problems that required the agency to restrict dog walking.
Finally, on March 23, 2016, nearly two months after the draft rule was released and four months after our revised FOIA request was submitted (and seven months after our initial FOIA request was made), GGNRA staff told us that some of the materials we requested had been put online. They gave us no timeline for the release of the rest of the material we had requested.
On April 5, 2016, SFDOG, Coastside DOG of San Mateo County, Marin County DOG, and Save Our Recreation filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service to force the agency to turn over the requested documents, especially emails from staff sent during the development of the dog plan. Attorneys Christopher Carr and Navi Dhillon, then of Morrison Foerster (both attorneys are now with the Baker Botts law firm), represented the dog and recreation groups in the lawsuit.
As a result of the lawsuit, a federal magistrate began to oversee the production of the requested documents. Representatives of the four plaintiff groups and our attorneys met monthly with the magistrate and representatives of the Park Service and their attorneys.
Over the course of the next year, the Park Service released hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, with thousands released every month. A dedicated group of volunteers divided up the documents; every page was examined by at least one person. In the meantime, the Park Service was moving ahead with the proposed rule. The agency announced that the new rule would be signed (at which point it would become the law governing dog walking in the GGNRA) in early January 2017.
On January 4, 2017, only a few days before the Park Service intended to sign the new rule, SFDOG and the other plaintiff groups published some of the emails that we had been given to us as a result of our FOIA lawsuit. We published them on a website we created that we called Woofieleaks.
The emails showed that Park Service employees used private email accounts to conduct official business. They used those private email accounts to coordinate with and help groups in favor of their proposed restrictions on dog walking to lobby elected officials to influence the outcome of the dog plan. These Park Service officials also developed media strategies and wrote materials for groups who supported the GGNRA’s proposed dog walking restrictions. Ultimately, we discovered that at least four GGNRA officials, including two Superintendents, the Director of Communications, and the staff member tasked with developing the dog plan, used private email accounts to conduct business about the dog plan.
In addition, the emails published on Woofieleaks revealed bias among Park Service staff against dog walking and against supporters of dog walking, as well as intentional destruction of documents, and the omission of data that supported dog walking from the environmental impact statements on the plan. All of which indicated that the process the Park Service used to develop its dog management plan was hopelessly biased and unfair.
On January 10, 2017, the Park Service announced that it was indefinitely delaying the dog rule while it investigated whether the use of private email accounts violated the law and agency policies.
“For years, the National Park Service assured Bay Area residents that it was conducting a fair and unbiased community input process,” said Andrea Buffa, a founder of Save Our Recreation. “Turns out they were lying. In reality, Park Service officials were working behind the scenes with anti-dog-walking groups on Congressional lobbying efforts and media strategies in support of the agency’s pre-determined agenda – to stop people in the Bay Area from walking with our dogs in our own backyard.”
Finally, on October 19, 2017, the Park Service announced that, after completing its investigation, it was permanently ending the rulemaking process to create a new dog management plan in the GGNRA. The 1979 Pet Policy would continue to govern where you can walk with your dog. Their desired restrictions would not take place.
SFDOG will continue to monitor the situation and, should the Park Service try to create a new dog management plan again in the future, we will fight new restrictions.