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Dog Lovers Win Battle Against Park Service

With FOIA requests, activists dig up dirt on feds to protect access

Dogs frolic on the beach in a recent weekend in Santa Cruz. The issue of whether or not dogs belong on certain beaches has become a contentious issue in cities all along the Northern California coast. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

It was nearly two years ago that more than 20 dogs and their owners, leashes in hand, wended down curvy paths in an unsuccessful effort to beg UCSC administrators to let them continue visiting a coastal refuge near Santa Cruz’s Westside. The dog owners protested a decision to bar pooches from the UCSC-owned trails near the school’s Long Marine Lab and Seymour Center, but the school refused to reverse it.

It’s a familiar battle in Santa Cruz, Live Oak, and other California cities, but one that may shift after canine advocates scored a major victory over the National Park Service (NPS) this year.

With a few hours to spare, two determined Marin women helped stop the NPS from making major cuts to dog walking in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which stretches from the county of San Carlos to Marin County.

The very day that the NPS was scheduled to finalize a restrictive Dog Management Plan, the agency capitulated, halting the plan until further notice—in part due to the work of Laura Pandapas and Cassandra Fimrite, who say they simply want to keep walking their dogs in the recreation area.

Neither activists nor rabble-rousers, Pandapas, an artist from Muir Beach, and Fimrite, a Tamalpais Valley mom of two teenagers and one black lab, stood against the NPS and its plan, which would have slashed off-leash dog walking by 90 percent and on-leash dog walking by 50 percent.

Although park experts provided no site-specific data, the NPS had given various reasons for the sweeping changes, including the protection of wildlife and newly planted native species. The women, who have been fighting the NPS for years, say they wanted to ensure that the agency ran a fair planning process and complied with the law. They lobbied lawmakers, requested NPS documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit. For now, at least, they have won in a bizarre saga that’s at least a little embarrassing for Park Service staffers.

“It’s the birthright of everyone here to use the public lands of the GGNRA in the way that Congress intended,” Pandapas says.

An act of Congress established the GGNRA in 1972, designating the land as a recreation area rather than a national park. A pet policy followed in 1979, allowing dog walking on select portions of the GGNRA, which amounted to less than 1 percent of the land.

The NPS has bandied about the idea of further restricting dog walking in the GGNRA for 15 years. In 2005, courts aborted such an attempt, citing lack of proper public notice. The NPS began the necessary public process the following year.

At meetings and in public comment periods, dog devotees cried foul. They argued that the NPS was not providing the public with adequate scientific studies to demonstrate the need for a change, and that the agency had a heavy bias against dog walking. The NPS decision, they said, was a fait accompli.

“There are tried and true conservation methods such as a land buffer, seasonal buffers and time-of-use restrictions,” says Pandapas. “The NPS could have given the public a buy-in, but they didn’t. Instead, the only tool they employed was the removal of dogs.”

NPS presented a draft plan with extensive changes in the dog rules last February, banning all off-leash dog walking on the fire roads and trails in Marin and left only Rodeo Beach for dogs to play off-leash. Concerned that the plan was too restrictive, the Marin County Board of Supervisors, Mill Valley City Council, Muir Beach Community Services District and Marin Humane Society opposed the plan. Congressman Jared Huffman suggested off-leash access in some areas before 10 a.m., as well as other compromises, but the GGNRA refused to budge.

The final Dog Management Plan rolled out last month and was almost identical to the draft. On-leash trails in Marin had been cut from 24 miles to just 8 miles. Then, on Jan. 10, when the NPS was to sign the Record of Decision and publish the Final Rule for Dog Management at GGNRA, they issued a press release stating that they were halting the plan until further notice.

Why the unexpected change? Perfect timing, according to Pandapas and Fimrite. “We showed that the NPS had a systemic pattern of bias and inappropriate relations with external groups,” Fimrite says.

When the NPS initially provided its draft plan, a coalition of dog and recreation advocate groups, including Marin County DOG (Dog Owners Group), an organization founded by Pandapas and Fimrite, requested public records from the NPS under FOIA. The NPS refused to comply. The groups filed a FOIA lawsuit to obtain the information and a federal court recently ordered the NPS to produce the documents.

More than 260,000 heavily redacted pages trickled in and were methodically combed through by the four plaintiff groups: Marin County DOG, Save Our Recreation, SFDOG and Coastside DOG of San Mateo County, and their attorney Chris Carr, of Mill Valley, a partner with Morrison & Foerster.

On Jan. 4, less than a week before the final plan would be signed into the official record, the plaintiffs revealed examples of unethical and perhaps illegal conduct on the part of senior GGNRA officials and staff. They posted more than 40 damning documents on a website they called WoofieLeaks.

In one instance, former GGNRA Director of Communications and Partnerships Howard Levitt, who retired last October, used his personal email account to conduct business regarding the dog management plan.

The decision-making process was required to be unbiased, but Levitt had worked with several private organizations to stack the deck against dog walking.

Levitt also directed staff to destroy emails and discuss aspects of the plan offline. “Everyone: Please delete this and the previous message,” Levitt wrote in a September 2013 email. “These conversations are best done by phone.”

A GGNRA wildlife ecologist urged staff in a 2006 email to leave out data from the Dog Management Plan Environmental Impact Statement, because it did not jibe with their desired outcome, specifically, to virtually eliminate dogs in the GGNRA.

It also seemed that Levitt had a personal bone to pick with dogs. In April 2014, he wrote to Kimberly Kiefer of San Francisco Recreation and Parks about his broken finger: “Ironically, it’s my middle finger … probably broke it expressing my opinion of out-of-control off-leash dog visitors.”

The documents that came to light on WoofieLeaks spurred the decision by the NPS to halt the signing of the plan and conduct an internal investigation.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier believes that doesn’t go far enough and has called for a “truly independent inquiry into whether NPS employees acted improperly with regards to their work on the GGNRA Dog Management Plan.” Speier also said that the use of personal email to improperly coordinate with outside advocacy groups is potentially illegal.

The possibly incriminating emails were among 260,000 pages that the NPS recently dumped on the plaintiffs. Though the federal magistrate who is presiding over the document production aspect of the lawsuit warned the plaintiffs that they wouldn’t find a smoking gun, they ended up uncovering an arsenal of information that they say demonstrates a clear bias on the part of the GGNRA staff.

The NPS declined to comment on the documents. Carr says they are just the tip of the iceberg.

“The records belong to us, the people,” says Carr, who adds that he and his clients will move ahead with the FOIA lawsuit against the NPS. Fimrite considers the emails as proof that the entire plan must be thrown out.

“Someone has to address what happened in the GGNRA,” Pandapas says. “The NPS can’t seem to engage in an honorable process. What’s happening in the Bay Area is nothing to be proud of.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. J. Freehouse Stuart

    March 10, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    This article makes it sound as if the pro-dog lobbyists are heroes. I doubt that the endangered Snowy Plovers whose nests will be destroyed by unleashed dogs, the families who want to enjoy the beach without constantly encountering aggressive dogs and dog droppings, and all the other wildlife and people who use Marin Headlands for a whole variety of purposes agree. These “dog advocates” are simply a privileged, moneyed, West Coast version of the East Coast rednecks who want the “right” to drive over Piping Plover nests with their off-road vehicles on the beach. Our public lands are for everyone, not just one user group.

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