Double-dealing Exposed in Woofieleaks

Citizens fight for off-leash recreation in Golden Gate National Recreational Area
By Sally Stephens, March 2017, Updated April 2017
Photograph by Amanda Jones from Unleashed (Chronicle Books, 2017)

Photograph by Amanda Jones from Unleashed (Chronicle Books, 2017)

Land that was once part of the U.S. military coastal defense system is now at the heart of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Over the past 45 years, land transfers, donations and purchases have been added to create an approximately 80,000-acre coastal greenbelt that runs from Marin County, south through San Francisco and into San Mateo County. Within its current legislative boundary, it shares oversight with other public agencies and land managers, although it has primary responsibility—and rulemaki

Land that was once part of the U.S. military coastal defense system is now at the heart of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Over the past 45 years, land transfers, donations and purchases have been added to create an approximately 80,000-acre coastal greenbelt that runs from Marin County, south through San Francisco and into San Mateo County. Within its current legislative boundary, it shares oversight with other public agencies and land managers, although it has primary responsibility—and rulemaking authority— for large swaths of the Marin Headlands and coastal San Francisco, as well as Alcatraz and sites on the San Francisco peninsula.

MORT STEIN

A contentious fight for off-leash recreation has raged for decades in Golden Gate National Recreational Area, with the National Park Service threatening to severely reduce access to dogs. New evidence proves that the battle has been fraught with bias, faulty studies and collusion.

San Francisco has a reputation for being dog friendly. More dogs than children live within its city limits, and many companies, especially tech start-ups, encourage employees to bring their dogs to work.

But San Francisco, surrounded on three sides by water, is also the second densest city in the country. As a result, recreational open space is at a premium, and that has led to squabbles in San Francisco’s urban parks, especially over where dogs can and cannot be walked.

Dog advocates have been fighting for years to preserve gains in recreational access made in the ’70s and ’80s. We have always felt the deck was stacked against us, but recent revelations have shown us that the situation was even worse than we thought. These revelations also forced a federal agency to delay implementation of the severe dog-walking restrictions it wanted to impose.

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An Urban National Park

In 1972, Congress created Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), initially a hodgepodge of land in San Francisco and Marin Counties, to “concentrate on serving the outdoor recreation needs of the people of the metropolitan area.” It was part of a Nixon administration’s campaign to “bring parks to the people” and increase outdoor recreation in urban areas.

San Francisco transferred all public oceanfront land within city limits to the National Park Service (NPS) for inclusion in GGNRA. In return, the NPS promised to protect and preserve the land’s traditional recreational uses, which included off-leash dog walking.

In 1979, as part of this promise, GGNRA developed a “pet policy,” which allowed people to walk dogs, including off-leash dogs, at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Fort Funston, Marin’s Muir and Rodeo Beaches, and on miles of trails in the Marin Headlands—somewhat less than 1 percent of the total holdings. For decades, people hiked these parklands with their dogs, played with them in the surf, and enjoyed the sense of community that arises in areas where people and dogs have fun together.

But, by the 1990s, the NPS management mindset at GGNRA began to move away from the original focus on recreational access. Senior staff argued that they needed to manage this highly modif ied, urban recreation area the same way that remote, pristine wilderness is managed. Since dogs are not allowed in places like Yellowstone or Crater Lake, the NPS claimed, they should never have been allowed in GGNRA. In their view, earlier promises no longer applied.

In 1995, the NPS began fencing off areas at Fort Funston to all visitors (not just people with dogs). Then, in 2001, it rescinded the pet policy by administrative fiat. In neither case did GGNRA staff bother to seek public input before making their decisions, despite being required by law to do so. In both cases, dog advocates went to federal court to force the agency to follow the law. In both cases, we won.

The Fort Funston case, in particular, embarrassed the NPS. Internal emails, uncovered in the lawsuit, showed that GGNRA staff had knowingly lied to the public about their plans, repeatedly telling people no more closures were coming while actively planning more fenced-off areas.

A New Plan

In the nearly 20 years since, the NPS has single-mindedly pushed forward with a plan to ban entirely or reduce significantly where we can walk with our dogs in GGNRA, partially as payback for dog-walkers daring to take them to court— and win.

In the final version of its “Proposed Rule for Dog Management in the GGNRA” released last year, the NPS called for drastic cuts of up to 90 percent in the few places where people could now walk with their dogs. It put even tighter restrictions on those who walk more than three dogs, prohibiting them from doing so on evenings or weekends anywhere in GGNRA. While targeting professional dog walkers, this provision would also have a huge negative impact on rescue groups and fosters, whose volunteers often walk larger groups of dogs.

According to this plan, if the NPS decides that there hasn’t been enough compliance with the new restrictions, GGNRA’s superintendent can change access status from off-leash to on-leash, or no dogs at all. The superintendent doesn’t have to show that dogs have caused any problems, just that too many people are walking dogs in areas where the NPS doesn’t want them. Within a few years, under this plan, all GGNRA dog walking could be prohibited with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen.

And, as GGNRA continues to rack up tens of millions of dollars in deferred routine maintenance— deferred because of a lack of funding— the NPS was willing to spend $2.6 million each year to hire more rangers to enforce the new restrictions on people with dogs.

Pushback

It would be an understatement to say that the proposed plan did not go over well with those who have enjoyed walking their dogs in GGNRA for generations. We organized protests and marches. We attended public meetings and reached out to local elected officials for support. At every stage of the process, public comment—including comments from nearly every local elected official—was overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed restrictions.

We pointed out that there was no evidence of significant negative impacts by dogs at any GGNRA site, and that there were serious errors and mistakes in the dog plan’s environmental analysis. We showed that the NPS did not analyze the impact on surrounding communities if the thousands and thousands of people who walked their dogs on parklands moved into the much smaller city parks. That analysis was the only thing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had asked of the NPS, yet the agency did little more than compile a list of nearby parks.

Despite everything, the NPS made only a few, mostly cosmetic, changes to the dog plan it first officially proposed in 2011. None of those changes benefited people with dogs.

In July 2015, hearing that a draft rule was coming soon, a coalition of dog and recreation groups, including Save Our Recreation, San Francisco DOG, Marin County DOG and Coastside DOG of San Mateo County, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the NPS, seeking documents related to the development of the dog plan.

When nearly a year passed with few documents released, Chris Carr, head of the Environment and Energy Practice Group at the prominent law firm Morrison & Foerster, sued the NPS for violating FOIA.

As a result of the lawsuit being filed, the agency finally began handing over the requested documents. They were damning. You can see them at WoofieLeaks.com. The website’s name may be cute, but the contents raise serious legal and ethical questions about how the NPS developed its plan. What clearly comes across is the agency’s complete and utter contempt for people and for public input. In their emails, NPS staff routinely mocked dog walkers, calling them “rattlesnakes,” and derided anyone—even elected officials— who dared question their plans. A staff biologist suggested leaving scientific information that supported fewer restrictions on dogs out of the plan’s environmental impact statement. A senior GGNRA official directed staff to delete emails about the dog plan, saying, “These conversations are best done by phone.”

But perhaps most troubling was the revelation that more than one GGNRA official used a private email account to conduct official business on the dog plan, apparently thinking the private emails would be hidden from any FOIA request. (They’re not, and you can read those on WoofieLeaks.com, as well.)

One senior staffer (who, ironically, served as GGNRA’s FOIA officer and director of communications and partnerships) used his private email account to collude and coordinate with special-interest groups opposed to dog walking. He did this in an effort to drum up public comments and support for GGNRA’s proposal at a time when the agency was supposed to be impartially analyzing alternatives. That same staffer may also have engaged in unlawful grassroots lobbying by advising those same groups on how to communicate with a member of Congress.

Shine a Light on Bias

The emails and other FOIA documents clearly proved that, as we always suspected, the NPS staff members who developed the dog plan were unfairly biased against dog walking and people with dogs. The surprise, however, was their level of active engagement with only one side in the debate: those opposed to dog walking.

Similar collusion is likely happening in other places where dog walking is under attack, and dog advocates should be on the lookout for it. Don’t be afraid to use whatever open-government laws exist in your jurisdiction, from FOIA to local “sunshine” laws, to ferret out bias and impropriety. Look what FOIA did for us.

The day before the NPS planned to sign the rule and put it into effect, the agency announced that the rule was being postponed indefinitely while it conducted an investigation of the private emails and their impact on the development of the dog plan.

Given the NPS’s long history of bias in this matter, there is serious doubt about the agency’s capacity to fairly and impartially investigate the actions of its own staff. To prevent a whitewash of GGNRA misdeeds, many people, including Congresswoman Jackie Speier (whose district includes GGNRA land in San Mateo and San Francisco Counties), have called for an independent inquiry by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General, not by NPS staff, as the agency has proposed.

The decades-long process to create a new dog management plan for GGNRA has been so seriously flawed by outright bias, collusion, omission of data and intentional subverting of the public process that any plan that comes out of it is similarly tainted. The NPS’s proposed plan can never be lawfully adopted and implemented.

Had it not been for our FOIA request and lawsuit, however, we might never have been able to prove our suspicions about the NPS’s unfair and predetermined process.

The fight is by no means over, however. The NPS could decide next week, next month, or anytime in the future to try to move forward with the same restrictive plan that it’s been pushing for nearly 20 years. But if they do, dog advocates— and our lawyers—will be waiting, ready to continue the fight for our right to walk with our dogs in places enjoyed by many generations of people and their pups.

Sally Stephens is a journalist and the chair of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group.