For Immediate Release, Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Contact: Adam Keats (415) 632-5304, (415) 845-2509 (cell)
Group Appeals to Obama Administration to Release Documents on
Secret Negotiations Between Feds and Tejon Ranch
Over Fate of Endangered Condors
LOS ANGELES— The Center for Biological Diversity today formally appealed the denial of its request for documents concerning secret negotiations between Tejon Ranch and federal authorities over Tejon’s development plans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is refusing to disclose the documents, despite laws mandating their availability to the public, citing a court seal in a lawsuit filed in 1997 by Tejon Ranch that sought to prevent the recovery of California condors.
“Something stinks here,” said Adam Keats, senior counsel at the Center. “The public has a right to these documents that concern Tejon’s application for a permit to harm California condors and destroy their habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service claims that a court order prevents them from releasing the documents, but the order exists only because the Service agreed to it in the first place, in a frivolous lawsuit brought by Tejon Ranch that the Service refuses to defend.”
The documents requested include any raw data that the Fish and Wildlife Service has received from Tejon regarding California condors on Tejon Ranch, as well as all communications between the company and the agency. The Center’s request was made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act by letter dated January 23, 2009. The Center is seeking the information to fill in gaps in data concerning condors’ use of Tejon Ranch as well as shed light on exactly what promises the agency has made to Tejon concerning the company’s request for a condor "incidental take permit" and a related habitat conservation plan for its development plans. The Service denied the Center’s request on April 8, 2009, prompting the Center to appeal to the Department of the Interior today.
“The public has a right to know exactly what promises Tejon has extracted from the Fish and Wildlife Service through its frivolous litigation,” said Adam Keats. “If the company was promised a permit, then this whole process may have been corrupted and laws may have been broken. The Freedom of Information Act is the only way we’re going to find out.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing an application by Tejon Ranch for a habitat conservation plan and incidental take permit for 26 endangered, threatened, or rare species on Tejon Ranch. The permits are essential to Tejon’s plans to develop Tejon Mountain Village, the controversial luxury home subdivision planned for the heart of designated critical habitat for the California condor.
In 1997, just as officials with the Condor Recovery Team were starting to release captive-reared California condors to the wild, Tejon Ranch sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to curtail the condor recovery program and relegate the condors to a special status without protection under the Endangered Species Act. Tejon’s legal arguments, although arguably specious and at best very weak, were not seriously opposed by the government, which instead settled the case for what is believed to be a sweetheart deal that has resulted in the current plan and take permit application.
In 1999, at Tejon’s request, the entire record for the lawsuit was sealed by court order and the case indefinitely stayed, leaving the case (and the order) active for the past 10 years. The terms of the order are not limited to just court-filed documents, though, as it includes all documents “related” to the settlement in any way, apparently including documents related to subject of the settlement: the proposed HCP, condors, and Tejon’s development plans. The Service has since demonstrated its willingness to give this language as expansive a definition as possible.
The Service, in denying the Center’s Freedom of Information Act request, stated that the only documents releasable under this agreement are the draft habitat conservation plan and the draft environmental impact statement themselves; none of the plan’s supporting evidence or related documents have been released nor have any of the documents related to the litigation or the deal struck between Tejon and the Service.
The Service made no mention of President Obama’s January 21 directive that “[a]ll agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” of documents in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Said Adam Keats, “Either the Service is ignoring the president, or the president’s words are just that — words.”
“When it comes down to it, the only reason the HCP is being prepared is because of a deal struck between the Fish and Wildlife Service and Tejon Ranch,” said Keats. “And nothing about that deal, nor any other communication between the Service and Tejon Ranch, is seeing the light of day because the Service agreed to keep it secret. This says a lot about the process, a lot about the plan, and a lot about the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Preserving Tejon Ranch as a new national or state park would protect a bounty of native plant and animal communities, cultural and historic features, and scenic vistas. See http://www.savetejonranch.org.