The coalition of dog and recreation groups sued the National Park Service over its most recent attempt to restrict dog walking in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Courtesy photo)

Sally Stephens: Why we sued the National Park Service over dog rules

We didn’t want to sue the Park Service.

On Wednesday, a coalition of dog and recreation groups sued the National Park Service over its most recent attempt to restrict dog walking in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). We had hoped to avoid litigation, but GGNRA staff left us no choice.

Full disclosure here. I am the (unpaid) chair of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group (SFDOG), one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and I’ve been involved in fights over access in the GGNRA for nearly two decades.

We didn’t want to sue the Park Service. We know how all-consuming, in time and resources, lawsuits can be. In 2015, as the GGNRA was pushing to implement a management plan that would radically reduce dog-walking access, our coalition submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the GGNRA for documents about the plan. When the GGNRA failed to respond to our request by 2016, we had to sue them.

The case dragged on for a year, with monthly meetings between us, our lawyers, GGNRA staff, and their lawyers as the court oversaw the production of documents. Tens of thousands of records were released.

Yet the GGNRA held the most relevant and controversial documents until the end of the process, not long before the plan was set to take effect. Those documents revealed that GGNRA staff used private emails to coordinate with groups opposed to dog walking to create support for the proposed restrictions. They also revealed other misdeeds, including instructions to delete communications about the dog plan. We posted the documents on Woofieleaks.com.

The revelations led the Park Service to withdraw the dog plan in 2017. We hoped we could begin to repair the frayed relationship between dog groups and the GGNRA. Meanwhile, GGNRA staff continued to look for new ways to restrict dog walking.

On the Friday before Labor Day, the GGNRA quietly released an administrative document called the Superintendent’s Compendium, intended to compile minor management changes, like closing an eroded trail. We were shocked to find elements from the withdrawn dog plan in the compendium. The document would close access for people with dogs at a number of sites in the GGNRA and change definitions in ways that will give nearly unfettered discretion for park rangers to harass people walking with dogs. Few of the dog-oriented restrictions were listed in a “Table of Changes” released with the compendium.

We immediately sent the GGNRA a FOIA request for documents concerning the compendium restrictions. By law, they are supposed to respond within 20 business days. They didn’t.

We also asked to meet with the GGNRA superintendent to discuss our concerns. She didn’t respond until nearly 50 days after the compendium was released, and only after Congresswoman Jackie Speier got involved.

The GGNRA posted a memo intended to justify the changes in the new document nearly a month after the Compendium was released. This post hoc rationalization did reveal one thing – it admitted that the GGNRA intended to change parts of the existing dog policy using the compendium process.

But three federal judges have told the GGNRA, in past cases, that the agency cannot make significant or highly controversial changes to public use by administrative fiat, as by a compendium. Instead, they’re required to follow a rulemaking process with an environmental impact review. So, last week, our attorney Chris Carr, a partner at Baker Botts in San Francisco, filed a lawsuit to stop the GGNRA’s attempt to “smuggle into law” restrictions on dog walking via the compendium. He also filed a second lawsuit over the FOIA violations.

“It’s a real shame that the GGNRA is, once again, forcing dog owners groups to go to court to protect public access to its urban recreation lands,” Carr said. “And dog owners groups shouldn’t have to take the GGNRA to court to make it comply with FOIA’s requirements to provide public records about its efforts to limit public access.”

It seems like the GGNRA learned little from the withdrawal of the dog management plan. They’re still violating federal laws and regulations in their crusade against dog walking. So, we’re headed back to court.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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