Dog owners are overpowering bird lovers in dispute over park usage 

Savvy dog owners are outmaneuvering environmentalists when it comes to political mobilization and media coverage of the newly proposed leash laws in area federal parks.

Since the Golden Gate National Recreation Area released a 2,338-page document proposing significant restrictions to where dogs can roam off-leash within its properties, headlines and television crews have focused on angry dog owners.

And that should surprise no one who follows the Bay Area’s mighty canine-industrial complex. By comparison, the local bird lobby has yet to squawk.

Dog power often wins out on the Peninsula and in San Francisco — a city believed to be home to more canines than children. When parents and pet owners clashed over the use of Duboce Park several years ago, the quadrupeds emerged from the fight with a minipark to call their own.

And when it comes to off-leash dogs in federal parks, dog enthusiasts have honed their tactics for years. The National Park Service attempted to enforce its widely ignored leash laws in 2001. But then dog owners organized, went to court and convinced Supervisor Mark Leno to threaten to take back Fort Funston and other parks The City originally bestowed to the federal government in 1975.

The NPS was forced to lick its wounds, and it only just returned with a new set of proposals.

“It’s really unusual to win when you sue the federal government,” said Sally Stephens, the chair of the SF Dog Group, which first came together around this very issue in 1997. “We’ve won three times.”

Meanwhile, advocates for the other animal interests at stake in the current fight have yet to make a peep.

“If you look at the number of birders, there are very few who are outspoken,” said Dan Murphy, who organizes The City’s annual bird count through the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Murphy remembers frequenting Fort Funston about 30 years ago and watching the frolicking quail and jackrabbits.

“Now I don’t even go there,” he said. “If they’re not gone, then they’re almost gone. That coincided almost concisely with the explosion of off-leash dogs out there.”

Murphy and representatives of other environmental groups say restricting where dogs can roam is part of the NPS’ obligation to such species.

“This would be the only national park, including urban national recreation areas, where you can walk your dog off-leash,” said National Parks Conservation Association Associate Director Neal Desai. “But there are more endangered and threatened species in GGNRA than at Yosemite, Yellowstone and Kings Canyon combined.”

Stephens, however, calls taking dogs out of urban parks “extreme environmentalism.” And thus far, that’s the viewpoint winning the PR war.

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Kamala Kelkar

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