The Nestlé Papers: What the FOIA Documents Reveal

April 26, 2016

Last week, I spent a couple of hours going through about 1,000 pages of documents related to Nestlé’s expired permit to take water from the San Bernardino National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service released that enormous stack of documents to us last Tuesday, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by the Story of Stuff Project last August. The documents mainly cover the period from the summer of 2014 to present, though there are quite a few pieces that go back decades.

A few things stand out:

First and foremost: Without the public’s attention and pressure, the Forest Service never would have taken action on the issue of Nestlé’s expired permit. We know this, but it bears repeating.

Secondly, a powerful story of sustained citizen action emerges over the timespan of these documents:

In 2014, when retired Forest Service biologist Steve Loe first started emailing his former colleagues about his concerns about the amount of water flowing in Strawberry Creek, one Forest Service staffer asks co-workers how he can get him to stop.

But as Steve persists, and starts to include journalists in his emails, Forest Service officials begin to take him more seriously. At one point, the Forest Supervisor in San Bernardino even asks her staff where Steve is getting the stream data for Strawberry Creek he cites in his emails.

The concern expressed in Steve Loe’s first emails to Forest Service officials leapt up off the page at me. The creek, a major drainage in the drought-ravaged forest, nearly ran dry in late summer 2014. This year gauges show stream flow at its lowest point in the last ninety years.

By the spring of 2015, after a series of investigative articles by Desert Sun reporter Ian James, and the signing of petitions demanding action by hundreds of thousands of Americans, the case lands on the desk of “the Chief”—Thomas Tidwell, head of the Forest Service—whose attention is invoked by a Forest staffer as she sought to rush a bill to Nestlé through the bureaucracy.

We also see in the documents Steve Loe’s repeated attempts to engage Nestlé itself in dialogue, asking for a meeting with the company’s local representative—Larry Lawrence—on behalf of a group of concerned citizens, including Amanda Frye, a local activist, and Gary Earney, another retired forest ranger.

Lawrence, Nestlé’s rep, would only agree to a one-on-one with Steve and then refuses to discuss the conditions of the company’s permit, pointedly asking Steve why it would interest him. Unbelievably, following Nestlé’s meeting with Steve, San Bernardino Forest Supervisor Judy Noiron emails the Nestle rep for his thoughts on the meeting. To be clear: Noiron is the public servant overseeing the entire question of a permit renewal for Nestlé. That’s YOUR public representative, asking for Nestlé’s opinion about a meeting with a former Forest Service staff person!

While all these communications were happening, Nestlé’s operations continued unabated, removing more than 30 million gallons from Strawberry Canyon in 2015 for bottling in the midst of an historic 500-year drought—more water even than was taken the year before.

On May 16, we’ll go to court to argue that Nestlé’s permit—which expired in 1988—is invalid, and that the Forest Service should turn off the spigot immediately. Several documents—letters from the Forest Service to Nestlé last spring and summer—include threats to restrict Nestlé’s operations. From these documents it is clear that the Forest Service believes it has the authority to stop the Nestlé operation.

The Forest Service made the right decision last year to review Nestlé’s permit. But it should also push pause on Nestlé’s withdrawal of water while that review proceeds, which could take as long as two years.

The Forest Service is obligated by law to sustainably manage public resources like the water, plants and animals in the San Bernardino National Forest—to hold it in trust for future generations. As retired ranger Gary Earney said in our short film on this case last fall, “that’s not what’s happening here.”

It is time for the Forest Service to tell Nestlé Waters: not one more drop.

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