Obama: Release Documents on Secret Negotiations Between Feds and Tejon Ranch Over Fate of Endangered Condors

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Adam Keats (415) 632-5304

Obama: 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 sham 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 bogus litigation,” said
Adam Keats. “If the company was promised a permit, then this whole
process has been corrupted and laws 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.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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