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Why some Bay Area dogs are tied up in controversy


Just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, a few miles from Muir Woods, lies Muir Beach. The beautiful and peaceful waterfront is a favorite among locals, travelers and man’s best friend.

But letting that dog off leash could soon be a thing of the past at Muir Beach and other open spaces in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, or GGNRA. Next year, the 80,000 acres of the GGNRA’s land, from San Mateo County to Marin County, will begin to operate under a new management plan for dogs. The proposed plan is an effort to regulate the rising number of dogs and visitors to the park. And it’s sparked a slow-burning controversy over how to use our public land.

Marin County native Laura Pandapas has been living in the small neighborhood that surrounds Muir Beach for seven years. She brings her dog to its off-leash-friendly beachfront almost every day.

“Muir Beach is a very dog-friendly community,” says Pandapas. “It's a community of people. There’s almost 200 homes here. It's like a little town.”

Even on an overcast day, like when I met Pandapas, the beach is buzzing with life. Beachgoers stake out spots on the sand, shorebirds circle over head and dogs run and play in the water.

“There are very few places you can go with a dog anymore,” says Pandapas. “And Muir Beach is one of them.”

Pandapas is a supporter of off-leash dog walking and a member of Marin County Dog Owners Group, one of a handful of off-leash advocacy groups across the Bay Area. Pandapas says off-leash exercise is vital for healthy and happy dogs.

“It's so important for the dog’s well-being,” says Pandapas. “A well-exercised dog is a well-behaved dog. It's better for everybody."

For many dog owners like Pandapas this freedom to walk their dogs leash free is an important part of the GGNRA. And, they say, it’s what separates it from other national parks.

“The park was not established to be a national park,” says Pandapas. “It was established to be a recreation area and they're very different things.”

Off-leash tradition

To really understand the purpose of the GGNRA, you have to go back to 1972, when the park was first created by an act of Congress. It was during an era known as “Parks for the People,” an initiative that focused on bringing nature closer to people living in urban areas, like San Francisco.

“It's an area for people to get away from the cities, recreate, hike, walk their dogs, enjoy the beauty of the place and to learn about nature,” says Huey Johnson, founder and president of Resource Renewal Institute, an environmental sustainability non-profit.

Johnson was also one of the original movers and shakers who helped create the GGNRA.

“I think the people who are behind this idea of stamping the use of bikes and dog walking and fires on the beach, for that matter, are really insensitive and ill-informed about the meaning and use of a recreation area,” says Johnson.

There’s actually a long tradition of off-leash dogs in many Bay Area parks that predates the creation of the GGNRA itself. When the park was first being developed, it inherited the recreational activities that were already taking place, making it the only off-leash-friendly park in the National Park System.  But according to GGNRA Communications Manager Howard Levitt, the park needed new rules for canines.

“As the numbers of dogs and the numbers of visitors increased, it became evident that we needed to create some sort of structured rule that applied to this park,” says Levitt. “This rule is exclusive to Golden Gate. It's not meant to apply anywhere else.”

That was almost 12 years ago and in theory this new rule will replace the aptly named Pet Policy of 1979, a set of guidelines that wasn’t really enforced.

Off-leash side effects

But now environmental advocates like Brent Plater say the GGNRA needs to rein in the dogs.

“Off-leash dogs are known to harass wildlife, especially shorebirds, in a disproportionate way from the rest of the activities in the GGNRA,” says Plater.

Plater is the executive director of Wild Equity, an environmental justice group based in San Francisco. The group is proposing what he calls a very simple solution.

“That's to ensure that those off-leash dog play areas are physically enclosed by some sort of boundary or barrier,” says Plater.

Plater also says the the city of San Francisco has more off-leash dog parks than any other city.

“There isn't any demonstrable need for more and more areas,” says Plater.

At Crissy Field in San Francisco, Martha Walters disagrees. She’s the president of Crissy Field Dog Owners Group.

“Where are those dogs going to go?” asks Walters. “They're probably going to go to the city parks. What's going to happen? There's going to be an increase in conflict. It's going to have a terrible impact upon the environment.”

Walters says the GGNRA’s proposed dog management plan didn’t evaluate the effect of forcing dogs to be on leash.

“Dogs are a lot more aggressive on leash than they are off leash,” says Walters. “What we're trying to do is to avoid conflict. And it seems like the park service is trying to create more conflict by being so restrictive in their preferred alternatives.”

Recreation versus preservation

The current dog management plan is over 15,000 pages long and offers six different alternatives for the GGNRA’s off-leash areas, from very restrictive off-leash dog-use to minimal restrictions. It takes into consideration the natural resources that live in its 80,000 acres like native Franciscan Manzanita trees, shorebirds like the Western Snowy Plover and ocean creatures like the sea otter.

“We're here to protect resources for the future,” says GGNRA communications manager Howard Levitt. “At the same time we want to make sure people can enjoy those resources. So it's a complicated mission.”

The dog management plan has received received close to 8,000 public comments, all of which were taken into consideration, says Levitt.

“And we've heard from everyone you can imagine,” says Levitt.

After everyone has their say, the question of managing dogs still lies on the National Park System’s dual mission of recreation and preservation and where the balance should be struck in this case. A final comment period for the GGNRA’s dog management plan will be announced later this fall.

The new rules will not go into effect until 2015. Until then, dogs are free to roam the parks without the constraint of a leash.