Park service reopens long-running fight with dog lovers

The National Park Service has revived a decades-long quarrel with local dog owners this fall by announcing changes to dog-access rules set to take effect Oct. 28 within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Released in a draft of the park’s biannual rulebook, the Superintendent’s Compendium, the regulations restrict dog walking in park lands across San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties, and expand park officials’ discretionary authority to cite and fine dog owners, and impound their pets.

In San Francisco, the changes include requirements to leash dogs on stairwells at Ocean Beach and in several parking, wildlife and plant protection areas in Fort Funston. Even stricter restrictions apply in San Mateo and Marin counties, where dogs will be banned from several park trails if the compendium is implemented.

Park authorities claim the changes are too small to require a public comment process. But several hundred dog owners have sent in comments anyway, insisting that the regulations are highly problematic and should be removed from the document.

“If they don’t make changes that satisfy our concerns, we will sue,” said Sally Stephens, a longtime member of a dog owners advocacy group, SF DOG, and a San Francisco Examiner columnist. “They used an improper procedure process to make changes that are highly significant, given the 30-year history we have with them.”

It wouldn’t be the first time dog owners have sued. Local dog advocacy groups and elected officials have been at odds with the park service since the late 1990s, when park officials first tried to ban dogs from 12 acres of land at Fort Funston to protect threatened bird species.

The fight continued through the early 2000s, when some groups sued park authorities over a plan that attempted to ban off-leash activity on park lands altogether. Dog owners won that battle.

And in 2017, after a protracted fight over a proposed dog management plan that would have halved the park lands where dogs were allowed to run off leash, it looked like they’d finally won the war. After a dozen dog owners filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and obtained proof of illicit cooperation between park authorities and dog-restriction advocates, the park service dropped the plan altogether.

A 1979 pet policy remained in effect then, until the park service released this year’s compendium.

Park authorities say the pet-management requirements in the new document only affect insignificant portions of land and even expand access to off-leash dogs in some areas such as San Francisco’s Crissy Field.

However dog owners groups dispute that claim, and are protesting the changes, some of which are phrased in vague or open-ended ways.

In Fort Funston, for instance, along with reassigning part of the off-leash designated areas to park staff use and banning dog access in habitat protection areas, the compendium designates “sensitive restoration areas” to be specified at the discretion of the superintendent.

“They can literally put up a sign that says, ‘This is now a restoration area,’ and that can justify keeping people from walking their dogs there,” Stephens explained. “Our concern is that this becomes a mechanism of precedent to close off areas. And so in five, 10 years, suddenly there’s hardly any place to go at Fort Funston to walk your dog.”

Dog owners said the compendium also introduces language expanding the definition of “unmanaged dogs” to include pets that aren’t immediately responsive to their owners’ calls. If a park ranger says that a dog is unmanaged or “running-at-large,” the pet can be impounded and the owner charged a fee.

“What happens when an officer who doesn’t really like dogs or has had some bad interactions with them sees you call Fluffy and Fluffy doesn’t come? He can now claim that Fluffy… should be impounded,” Stephens said. “(The National Park Service) will have riots on their hands if they start impounding people’s dogs when the owner is right there.”

In direct correspondence with residents, the park service has defended the compendium, arguing that the agency dealt with pet management in a transparent and fair manner, while keeping past concerns in mind.

“The current staff has recognized how painful this chapter was in the history of the park and its communities and has sought to move past it,” one email read. “The compendium notice was sent to the thousands of people that subscribe to our newsletters, stakeholders, the media, and our elected officials and demonstrates a deliberate intent at transparency.”

The service has said the regulations are meant to make the parks safer for all visitors, sensitive wildlife and plants – a task that has grown considerably more difficult with park visitation reaching over 17 million people in recent years.

“Since the Gold Rush we’ve lost 85 percent of our intertidal habitat and as a result we now have low functioning areas,” said Pam Young, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, whose suggestions concerning the protection of threatened animal and plant species were incorporated into the compendium. “Being able to enjoy these areas as a recreational environment is important, but… if that access overwhelms the habitat, it will stop functioning.”

Dog owners groups remain unconvinced, with many on social media arguing the changes represents park authorities’ continued efforts to escalate conflict and chip away at dog-accessible spaces.

“They’re at it again,” a Fort Funston dog owners group said in a Facebook post.

“The GGNRA is being driven by groups taking extreme, uncompromising positions trying to reframe urban nature… as something without people and their pets,” another San Francisco Bay Area group wrote Saturday.

Bay Area elected officials have, for the most part, backed dog owners over the years in their fight to maintain recreational dog walking spaces in the GGNRA. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier and Jared Huffman have expressed concern about the latest round of changes.

“The 2019 Compendium should strike a balance between protecting wildlife habitat and visitors, while allowing dogs and their responsible guardians ample area to recreate,” the congress members wrote in a public letter to the park service. The letter urged the park service to work closely with community groups and keep an open mind by considering, consulting and incorporating their comments into the compendium.

In an interview with The Examiner, National Park Service spokesperson Charles Strickfaden said the agency will review public comments – both in favor and opposed to the pet policies – and revise the document if necessary.

“Ultimately, we’ve got to do what’s right for all of our visitors, and protect our resources,” Strickfaden said. “All of our partners and stakeholders, they are welcome to (sue) and have their opinions: That’s a right of our communities and our country.”

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