I used to think the National Park Service was a great institution. In high school, I even considered a career as a park ranger. But having been involved in a fight with the Park Service for more than 15 years, I have lost all faith in the agency.
In their attempts to restrict where you can walk with a dog in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes nearly all the beaches and coastal land in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, the Park Service has repeatedly misled the public. They have shown nothing but contempt for opponents of their plans and for the process that requires public comment on controversial issues.
The Park Service is ramming through an unpopular, unscientific dog plan, just so a retiring agency director can add this final feather to his ranger’s cap.
The agency has no clue how to manage an urban recreation area located within a city of 800,000 people. In fact, in recent years, the Park Service has insisted on managing the urban GGNRA as if it was a remote, pristine backcountry, where people have solitary wilderness experiences.
The most visible impact of this management change has been on people who enjoy walking with their dogs. Not long after the GGNRA was created, staff developed a Pet Policy that allowed dog walking, including off-leash, on just 1 percent of the GGNRA’s land. People with dogs have never asked for more space; we just want to preserve that 1 percent.
Whether it was closing areas at Fort Funston to all visitors (not just people with dogs) or unilaterally rescinding the 1979 Pet Policy, the Park Service didn’t bother to ask for public comments before taking action. We had to go to court to force the agency to follow the law.
The Fort Funston case, in particular, embarrassed the Park Service. Emails uncovered in the lawsuit showed that GGNRA staff had knowingly lied to the public about their plans, repeatedly telling people no more closures were coming, while actively planning additional ones.
For years, the Park Service has single-mindedly and determinedly pushed its plan to cut where you can walk with a dog off-leash now by nearly 90 percent and significantly reduce where you can walk on-leash.
That’s not balance, that’s retribution.
The agency claims environmental and safety problems. Yet even their own environmental reviews have shown no significant impacts from dogs at any specific site in the GGNRA. Instead, they cite anecdotes, a wholly unreliable, unscientific basis for such dramatic access restrictions.
Whether you like dogs or not, you should be alarmed at how the Park Service has acted. Despite overwhelming public opposition — including by nearly every elected official in the three counties — the Park Service has made few changes from their original plan. They may be legally required to “take” public comment, but they clearly see no need to “act” on it.
Last year, knowing a draft rule was imminent, several groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Park Service for documents relating to the new rule. They didn’t respond. Several FOIA requests made by other dog plan opponents over the years have been similarly ignored. FOIA requests made by supporters of their proposed dog plan, however, were answered.
Once again, we had to go to court to force the Park Service to release documents we have every right to see. Under a judge’s close watch, the agency is finally being forced to produce the documents we first requested nearly a year and a half ago, months before the proposed rule was released. Unfortunately, by the time we received the first documents, the public comment period on the proposed rule had already ended.
The only plausible reason for the agency to push this hard and this fast is that current Park Service Director Jon Jarvis — who once famously told dog owners that he’d “rather give up the GGNRA than have dogs running there” — retires in January.
So the Park Service is rushing to finalize the dog rule early in January. My naive image of the National Park Service as America’s “best idea” has been shattered. I can understand why people are angry with the government. I am, too.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.