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.
"The policy was adopted by the superintendent at the time of the GGNRA, and even that wasn't really enforced," GGNRA spokesperson Howard Levitt told us. "This was relatively early in the parks history, and in the early days, we didn't really understand the importance of natural resources and history in the park."
According to NPS, GGNRA is home to more threatened and endangered species than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, and Kings Canyon national parks combined. It has a higher concentration of sensitive species than all but four of the 394 parks in the system.
The new pet plan would not be implemented until late 2012, after public comment is taken and the plan is revised. For six to 12 months, monitoring areas to measure compliance with leash laws will be conducted. If 75 percent of users do not comply, further restrictions will be made.
Current regulations are broken everyday at Ocean Bean and Fort Funston. Like the lax marijuana laws that are synonymous with San Francisco, leash laws have historically been considered more of a suggestion than a rule. At Crissy Field, one of the most popular recreation spaces for off-leash dogs, NPS observed dog owners disobeying the guidelines more than 60 percent of the time.
Many people do not realize that the four-mile stretch of Ocean Beach slated for restriction currently only allows dogs from May to June, or that the Great Meadow of Upper Fort Mason has never allowed the many off leash dogs seen there every day. Dog advocates say better signage about existing rules would help.
"To me, they went this way instead of having any intermediate steps in current policy and off leash areas," said Rebecca Katz, director of the Animal Care and Control. "I am not supportive of the alternative. This isn't like any other national park, and we don't want it to be."
On a recent visit to Fort Funston, it was evident that the park was, as some environmentalists call it, a de facto off-leash area. Dozens of dogs, most off leash, romped in the windy dunes, far outnumbering dog owners and professional dog walkers. Most dogs happily jumped from car to sand without ever being put on a leash.
Longtime San Francisco resident Candy Deboer and her giant schnauzer, Leila, have been coming to the park for years after finding city parks unsatisfactory.
"Golden Gate Park? I've tried that and I ended up stepping over hypodermic needles," Deboer said. "Plus, I have a dog that loves junkie poop. I grew up camping, hiking, and fishing. I know how to preserve wildlife and take care of a park."
Many said closing Fort Funston and Ocean Beach in March during tsunami warnings resulted in horribly crowded dog parks, and felt that GGNRA's plan would deliver more of the same.
"We are using the parks the way they are supposed to be used," said San Francisco resident Willa Hagerty, who also spoke at some of the hearings on the plan. "If we are doing something wrong, let us know with signs or fences."
For some, walking dogs isn't just a means of enjoying the outdoors, it's a source of income. "The plan would really affect a lot of jobs like mine," said SF resident and dog walker Josh Boutelle, who impressively handled eight different dogs while on a run for SF Pup Prep. "There will be more incidents in parks when there is crowding."
Although everyone surveyed at Fort Funston stridently opposed the plan, most supported regulations in some form, from limiting the number of dogs professional walkers can handle to requiring leashes in some parts of the park. Sup. Wiener is also in the process of devising regulations for dog walking in city parks.
But the GGNRA plan has pitted environmentalists against dog advocates. The Sierra Club and Golden Gate Audubon Society support the plan and even argue that more restrictions are needed than proposed. Those groups, along with six other organizations including the California Native Plant Society and Nature in the City, wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors April 8 opposing Wiener's resolution.
"The GGNRA was created in part to bring a national park-caliber experience to all Bay Area residents and visitors, not to expand recreation opportunities for dog owners," the letter states. "Contrary to what some are saying, the proposed plan is not about keeping dogs out of the GGNRA. Rather, it is about inviting dogs into the park in a manner that is sustainable and fair to all park users."
The Sierra Club has even used the dog debate as a big factor for its mayoral endorsement. Sen. Leland Yee has spoken in support of the plan, while mayoral candidates Sup. John Avalos and Board President David Chiu voted to oppose it.
"I'm concerned that the Sierra Club is going to use a microscope on a tiny, insignificant measure to make a decision on mayoral endorsement," Avalos told us. "The dog policy is insignificant compared to so many other environmental issues."
Others disagree. Michael Lynes, director of the Golden Gate Audubon society, thought Wiener's resolution was hasty and did a disservice to the years of work NPS has put into the plan.
"They keep talking about the impacts to the city, while here they are trying to do something that impacts the National Park," Lynes said. "The resolution is really strange. It opposes the Park Service's effort to regulate land in a way that is sustainable and equitable."
Opponents say evidence of dog-induced damage to wildlife and humans is unclear, but the plan gives hundreds of pages of studies and incident reports. In 2008, nearly 900 dog-related incidents were reported, including attacks on vulnerable populations such as young children, seniors, and, disabled people. In 2005, Guide Dogs for the Blind found that 89 percent of their graduates had guide dogs interfered with by off leash dogs.
Plus, as difficult as it may be for dog lovers to fathom, not everyone wants to be around dogs when enjoying the outdoors. Currently, dogs are allowed on all but one major trail in the GGRNA, and China Beach in the Presidio is the only beach where people can have a dog-free experience.
"At the end of the day," Lynes said, "people don't want to change their behavior."