Canine conflict

Proposal to restrict off-leash dogs on federal parklands has owners howling and environmentalists cheering

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Fort Funston, a popular spot for letting dogs roam free, could have more leashing requirements under the new rules.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS/FOGCITYJOURNAL.COM

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San Francisco enjoys proximity to natural beauty and recreation on a scale unlike any other major urban area in the country. The 75,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers city dwellers almost 60 miles of rugged coastline, forested hiking trails, and scenic beaches to enjoy. In most cases, people can bring their dogs.

While the city is notoriously difficult to raise human children in, four-legged friends flourish in an environment that celebrates their existence. With a multitude of dog-friendly parks, pet hotels, and ubiquitous doggie boutiques to accommodate the estimated 120,000 dogs that call San Francisco home, the canines and their companions form their own political constituency.

So it's only natural that GGNRA's Draft Dog Management Plan, which restricts dog walking in the park, has the pet set howling. The plan would limit off-leash dogs to 21 different areas of the park, including some of the most popular places such as Crissy Field, Fort Funston, and Ocean Beach, and ban dogs from some areas, like Muir Beach, where they have long been welcome.

The 2,400-page plan has been in the works since 2002, created out of the need to uphold the agency's duty to protect the sensitive wildlife and plant species in the park while accommodating a growing population of visitors. Since its unveiling in January, thousands have rallied against it, filing so many comments to the National Park Service that it has extended the public comment period until May 30.

Currently, dogs are allowed off-leash in small fraction of the GGNRA lands and on-leash throughout most of the park. The proposed plan offers six alternatives for each of the 21 areas examined, all strengthening existing — but often ignored — leashing policies and reducing areas where dogs are allowed to roam tether-free.

"This is overly restrictive and unrealistic," said Martha Walters, chair of the Crissy Field Dog Group. "There are certainly more management measures that can be taken with signage and educational outreach to protect these environments without having to impose this plan."

Opposition has been widespread among pet owners and groups like the SPCA and Animal Care and Control. The Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 on April 26 to adopt a resolution formally opposing the plan, although the city has no jurisdiction over the area.

"It's one thing to make sure we protect endangered species, but this plan doesn't just do that," said District 8 Sup. Scott Wiener, who authored the resolution. "This is a much more extreme proposal that is a significant restriction to dogs."

Opponents fear the plan will force more dogs into city parks where overcrowding and aggressive behavior could become problems. Dog owners and advocates stress that responsible dog guardianship can be compatible with environmental stewardship, and that the NPS should better enforce the pet policy already in place.

"This is not right for our community," said Jennifer Scarlett, codirector of the SPCA. "I would never want to wish harm on any wildlife, but it's a piece of land stuck in one of the most densely populated cities in the country."

But the GGNRA is still part of NPS, although many existing national environmental policies have largely been ignored here.

"We don't get to choose whether or not to fulfill federal mandates," said Alexandra Picavet, public affairs specialist for the GGNRA.

The GGNRA allows leashed dogs in more places than any other national park, and is the only park in the entire NPS system that allows off-leash dogs. It achieved National Park status in 1972, but its unique position as the backyard of a major city caused it to bend the rules when it came to letting the dogs out.

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