By Ilana DeBare
Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a national treasure, some 80,000 acres of wild coastland in the middle of our very urban San Francisco Bay Area.
It is also the center of a political battle – between uncompromising dog advocates and people who believe the GGNRA should balance the interests of wildlife, dog owners, and visitors who want a dog-free nature experience.
The National Park Service is currently undertaking a long-overdue process of updating its GGNRA dog management policies to provide a more balanced approach.
Golden Gate Audubon supports the proposed new policies as an improvement over the status quo, where a combination of outmoded rules and lax enforcement allows dogs to run uncontrolled through important wildlife areas like Ocean Beach and Crissy Field.
But San Francisco dog activists are mounting a loud, emotional campaign against the new policies, which they call a “plan to get rid of people with dogs” and an “attack on all recreational use and access on GGNRA land.”
If you care about wildlife and a healthy balance of uses within the GGNRA, the National Park Service needs to hear from you.
The Park Service is accepting comments until February 18h. Click here to file a comment online.
The roots of the dog conflict go back to the formation of the GGNRA in 1972. The new national park was formed from a variety of public and private lands, all of which had different policies about dogs. As a result, GGNRA became the ONLY national park in the country to allow unleashed dogs.
The hodge-podge of grandfathered-in rules continued until 1979 when the National Park Service adopted a Pet Policy aimed at governing where dogs were allowed, both on-leash and off-leash.
But the 1979 policy was quickly overwhelmed as the Bay Area’s population grew and the number of visitors – both with and without dogs – skyrocketed.
Some parts of the GGNRA became so thick with dogs that they were essentially giant dog runs. Off-leash dogs threatened the colonies of endangered Western Snowy Plovers at Ocean Beach and Crissy Field. Park staff spent more and more time managing conflicts between dogs and people, dogs and wildlife, and among dogs themselves.
In 2008, the NPS filed almost 900 pages of Criminal Incident Records involving dogs in the GGNRA, many of which involved dogs chasing and harassing wildlife. Some examples:
- 1/6/08 – off-leash dog chasing birds in the dunes
- 3/5/08 – Dog chased nesting shorebirds… it ran more than 200 yards away from the dog walker and beyond any control for at least 15 minutes
- 3/14/08 – Owner of dog chasing birds explained, “He’s a Pit Bull, likes birds, and needs something to chase”
These problems continue. Last April, a park visitor took cell phone photos of an unleashed dog killing two goslings at the Crissy Field beach while its owner stood by, saying “Oh, it’s not going to hurt them.” (You can read the account on our blog.)
And just last month, GGAS board member David Anderson watched an off-leash dog kill a gull at Sutro Baths. When David challenged the dog owner, he responded, “I let my dog train with them for hunting. It helps them when I go duck hunting.”
Roots of the problem
There are several roots to the GGNRA’s dog problem:
- There are not enough dog-free trails in the San Francisco section of the GGNRA. It is hard for visitors to find a place to have a quiet, dog-free nature experience.
- Off-leash areas are not set off clearly enough from other parts of the GGNRA, so it is not clear to dog owners where pets need to stay on-leash. All off-leash areas should be enclosed by fencing or natural barriers.
- Some dog owners can’t sufficiently control their dogs. In off-leash areas, dogs are supposed to be under “voice control.” But many dogs aren’t well-trained enough to respond to their owner at moments of excitement.
- The number of commercial dog walkers with multiple dogs continues to grow. It’s hard for anyone to control five or six off-leash dogs.
- Enforcement is lax. Non-compliance has been the status quo. During 2007/08, for instance, only 27 percent of dogs in the Crissy Field Wildlife Protection Area were on leash as required by the rules.
In 2011, the Park Service drafted new dog management policies and took public comments on the Environmental Impact Statement for those policies. This fall, it released its final version of the EIS, for which it is currently taking comments.
Proposed rules are an improvement
The proposed policies represent an improvement over the status quo in several important ways. They prohibit dogs from some key areas such as Ocean Beach south of Sloat Avenue, and the Crissy Field Wildlife Protection Area. They also require dogs to be leashed in some areas where they are currently allowed off-leash, such as the Ocean Beach Snowy Plover area. Overall, the new rules will provide more opportunities for people to picnic, hike or view wildlife without dogs running around.
There are still significant ways in which the new rules fall short of protecting wildlife:
- They do not require fencing or natural barriers around off-leash areas.
- They allow commercial dog walking with permits, for up to six dogs.
- They don’t set numerical compliance goals. The first draft of the EIS required a fixed percentage (such as 75%) of dog owners to comply with the rules, or tougher regulatory measures would automatically kick in. We are concerned that without fixed compliance targets, the new rules will not be enforced.
Even with these shortcomings, the new rules will be a significant step forward for ensuring the park is accessible and enjoyable by a wide variety of visitors – families with young kids, seniors, joggers and (yes) birders.
The new rules still provide plenty of opportunity for responsible owners to spend outdoor time with their dogs!
Many GGAS members are also dog owners and understand the importance of respecting wildlife while enjoying the outdoors with their dogs. We don’t see this as an issue of dogs-versus-birds – we see it as an issue of balancing park uses. The San Francisco Chronicle took a similar view in an editorial this fall:
Dogs deserve a place in the outdoors, and so does everyone else. It makes sense to share this scarce space without letting one group take over.
The GGNRA is a national as well as a local treasure. Please join us in speaking up for a balance of uses in the GGNRA, along with a strong enforcement policy that will make the park safe and enjoyable for everyone.
Read more about Golden Gate Audubon’s recommendations for dog management in the GGNRA: https://goldengateaudubon.org/expired-announcement/news/dog-management-in-the-ggnra/ .