The National Park Service will hold off on signing and therefore finalizing new dog management rules for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that would limit dog-friendly and off-leash areas, the organization announced today. The decision was made, in part, following requests from members of congress like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had asked to extend the waiting period for an environmental impact statement on the new rules. The adjustments would reduce the milage of beaches open to dogs from 7.2 to 2.8, and the process has already generated more than 15,000 public comments. But there's another reason the National Park Service also acknowledged in its decision to wait before signing the "Record of Decision" and publishing the new rules. That's to allow time for a review of records under a Freedom of Information Act request related to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's conduct in arriving at the dog plan.
Last week, a group of dog owners dismayed by the new rules and the rule-making process released an online data dump of documents related to FOIA requests. Those documents, which the umbrella advocacy group Save our Recreation has dubbed "WoofieLeaks," purport to show misconduct on the part of GGNRA officials, behavior ranging from a mocking tone toward dog owners to omission of data.
The emails in WoofieLeaks were obtained via a lawsuit after Save Our Recreation's initial 2015 FOIA request wasn't met with a swift response. For one example of the dirt the lawsuit dug up, in an April 2014 email obtained by the WoofieLeakers, GGNRA Director of Communications & Partnerships Howard Levitt wrote that “Ironically, it’s my middle finger [that's broken] probably broke it expressing my opinion of out of control off leash dog visitors.” Oh no he didn't!
In response to the WoofieLeaks cache, the National Park Service responded that it had released more than 260,000 pages of documents dating back to 1999 in response to the FOIA request. But Chris Carr, a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster which brought suit regarding the FOIA, tells the Chronicle that the GGNRA is still withholding information.
"I think they’ve finally taken a concerted look at what has surfaced," he said, but he still feels "that the process has been fatally tainted by the bad-faith conduct of the GGNRA and its staff.” Carr claims that some emails haven't been handed over because park service employees say they've forgotten passwords to systems where older ones are stored.
But that's not exactly what the National Park Service addressed in its announcement that it would delay enactment of the new dog rules. Instead, the Service claims it "learned that a former park employee had used personal email for official communications related to the Dog Management Plan planning process." The employee is cooperating with them, the Park Service says, and in that employee's personal account there were "approximately 137 pages of emails that were responsive to the FOIA request."
Rather than speaking to the allegations of the WoofieLeaks papers, the Park Service writes that it "will conduct an independent inquiry into whether personal email was used in a manner that is not consistent with applicable laws and policies, and if so, whether its use affected the planning and rule-making processes." The review will be conducted by National Park Service personnel who were not involved in the dog management plan-making process, the Service explains.
If you'll forgive the comparison, the drama here may be all-too-familiar to those exasperated by email "scandals" in recent memory, which served as an effective political tool to prolong doubt and spread unwarranted suspicion. If that past instance is any example, the tactic is probably going to work in this case, too.