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A huge win for Bay Area recreation

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Dog advocates are declaring victory after a decades-long battle with the National Park Service to allow dog-walking in designated parts of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner)
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http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/sally-stephens/

Going up against the federal government is hard. But, sometimes, when you keep plugging away for decades, you win.

On Thursday, the National Park Service announced that it is permanently ending to its attempts to put new restrictions on where you can walk with a dog in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Those attempts had gone on for more than two decades, at a cost to the government — and taxpayers — of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, in a triumph for accountability and transparency, we prevailed.

I’ve been involved in this struggle for more than a decade. Many of my friends have been fighting even longer, some through three generations of dogs. None of us were ever paid for our efforts. We love walking with our dogs at places like Fort Funston, Ocean Beach and Muir Beach, and we fought hard to continue to do so.

We fought with our pens, writing page after page of public comment, year after year. We fought with our feet, marching in protest of the Park Service plan. We fought with our words, convincing nearly every local official to join our opposition. And we fought alongside our lawyers, who filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on our behalf to get access to NPS documents. Ultimately, that lawsuit led to Thursday’s announcement.

Over the past decade, the Park Service released three environmental impact statements — each more than 2,000 pages long — and claimed each justified the severe cuts they wanted that drastically reduced where you could walk with your dog. Problem was, the Park Service never produced any studies that showed dogs negatively impacted the environment at any site in the GGNRA any more than people do.

There is no significant environmental or safety reason to justify the draconian restrictions the Park Service wanted.

Over the past decade, public comments overwhelmingly opposed the Park Service’s proposed dog plan. The boards of supervisors of all three counties with GGNRA land — Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo — opposed the plan.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier has been sharply critical of the Park Service throughout this process. Her support for recreational access in an urban recreation area has been vitally important. Former Supervisor Scott Weiner, now a state senator, tried for years to compromise with the Park Service to no avail.

Despite the widespread opposition, the Park Service continued pushing ahead with its plan, with each new iteration nearly identical to the one before.

We always thought the process was rigged against people with dogs. Now, we know it was. Documents handed over in the lawsuit revealed that GGNRA employees, including two superintendents, used private emails to collude with interest groups opposed to dog walking to generate support for the Park Service plan.

The emails revealed additional misconduct, the intentional destruction of documents involved in the rulemaking process, the purposeful omission of scientific data and bias against people with dogs and dog walking. We published the emails at Woofieleaks.com.

It’s hard to argue that GGNRA staff did not knowingly and willingly corrupt what should have been a fair and impartial process in their unstoppable drive to get what they wanted. You can’t separate the plan from the process, and Thursday’s about-face was an official acknowledgement that the plan was fatally flawed.

This appears to signal a welcome new era of transparency and accountability at the National Park Service. It’s become all too obvious that former Director Jon Jarvis, who was the driving force behind the GGNRA dog plan, fostered an agency-wide culture of misconduct, with few consequences for the perpetrators. The new leadership at the Park Service, however, from acting Director Michael Reynolds to Department of Interior officials, seems serious about changing this toxic culture, as the withdrawal of the corrupted dog plan shows.

The GGNRA is a model urban recreation area that spans 80,000 acres. There is room for both recreation and nature. People have only ever been able to walk with dogs on less than 1 percent of its land. Now, recreational dog walking will continue to be an important part of the recreational mix in the GGNRA, without the threat of crippling restrictions.

It’s a remarkable win.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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