On Aug. 31, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service in California Northern District Court in San Francisco on behalf of freelance journalist Peter Byrne.
The complaint alleges that the National Park Service is violating the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to disclose public records that may reveal decades of federal mismanagement of Point Reyes National Seashore and ongoing environmental concerns.
Since 2020, the North Bay Bohemian and Pacific Sun have published a half dozen investigative reports by Byrne detailing how the Park Service has harmed the endemic ecologies of Point Reyes by leasing a third of the parkland to the environmentally destructive dairy and beef ranching industry. The science and historicity revealed by the reports are influential in informing activities in environmentalist circles, and have garnered attention in local and national press.
Byrne’s ongoing reporting on Point Reyes is supported by the Washington D.C. based Fund for Investigative Journalism and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and has been recognized with several journalism awards.
These investigative stories on the environmental and archeological disaster at Point Reyes are sourced by public records obtained at the county, state and federal levels. The lawsuit declares that the United States Department of Interior, of which the National Park Service is a division, is improperly withholding public records; and that the agency is overly redacting (censoring) some of the records it has provided to Byrne. The lawsuit protests that on the Point Reyes National Seashore website, the National Park Service wrongly accuses Byrne of publishing factual inaccuracies in what appears to be an attempt to avoid disclosing evidence of governmental malfeasance.
The opening of the lawsuit reads like a blurb for a John Grisham novel, if he wrote about matters as seemingly mundane as FOIA: “In December of 2020, Plaintiff authored an article, Apocalypse Cow: The Future of Life at Point Reyes National Park … The article was highly critical of the 250-page Environmental Impact Statement on Point Reyes that was released earlier that year by the National Park Service. The NPS was so sensitive to criticism of its work that it went so far as to post ‘corrections’ to Plaintiff’s Apocalypse Cow article on the agency’s website, which remain to this day.” After the Park Service posted its response online, the editors of the North Bay Bohemian and Pacific Sun investigated the claim that there were factual errors, and there are none.
The complaint continues, “Ever since Plaintiff’s Apocalypse Cow article was published, Plaintiff has consistently experienced unlawful barriers to obtaining public records from Defendants. Defendants have strung along, or stymied, his attempts to obtain what they are statutorily obligated to provide: public records. The public records that Plaintiff seeks—improperly withheld by Defendants—would shed light on credible, first-hand reports of a plethora of inter-related ecological, environmental, and archaeological issues, including: prioritization of commercial dairy and cattle ranching interests above statutorily mandated public-interest duties of Defendants; commercial dairy farms and cattle ranches neglecting septic systems on said farms and ranches, resulting in polluted water; polluted water harming elephant seals; enclosure of tule elk into an unsustainable environment for the benefit of dairy farms and cattle ranches, resulting in preventable deaths of these elk; and cattle trampling and destroying indigenous archaeological sites.”
The lawsuit describes the categories of records improperly withheld by the Park Service, and asks for a judge to order full disclosure.
- Federal financial disclosure statements of Park Superintendent Craig Kenkel;
- Annual budgets for the operation of Point Reyes National Seashore;
- Park Service correspondence with the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, the Seashore’s co-manager;
- Park Service correspondence with Rep. Jared Huffman, who is a strong supporter of keeping federally subsidized industrial agriculture in the Seashore in perpetuity, despite the ecological damage attributed to ongoing dairy and cattle ranching in the park by the National Park Service’s own investigations;
- Bids and contracts and disbursements awarded under government mandate to a small business for work cleaning up rancher generated toxic waste that was in actuality performed by a company that was not an eligible small business;
- “All reports, memoranda, email or other forms of internal and external written communications regarding the health of elephant seals at Point Reyes National Seashore from September 2022 to the present which are reported by the PRNS co-manager to ‘sicken and die’ from Seashore waters polluted with agricultural run- off, including but not limited to correspondence between the NPS, Rep. Jared Huffman, Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, California Coast Commission, Marine Mammal Center.”
- Records related to the preservation of, or failure to preserve, Indigenous archeology sites.
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP is a major force in all mediums of media law, representing many national companies. Firm partner Thomas R. Burke regularly litigates high profile public records cases.
Regarding Byrne’s complaint, Burke commented, “The public cannot provide meaningful oversight into the management of this national treasure unless and until the National Park Service begins to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. This lawsuit will force compliance.”