Upfront: Bone of contention

Proposed Rule for Dog Management a hot debate

Prancing poodles, sociable golden retrievers and pooches of indiscernible lineage were among around 1,000 dogs that shepherded their people across the promenade at Crissy Field during the Mighty Mutt March on a sunny Saturday last month. Though the canines acted carefree during the procession, their angry guardians had gathered to protest the Proposed Rule for Dog Management, aimed at keeping them on a tighter leash in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).

Marchers yelped that over the last 14 years, the National Park Service (NPS), which manages the GGNRA, brandished a big stick and presented plan after plan to greatly decrease the number of areas that allow recreational dog walking, both on- and off-leash.   

According to officials, there are environmental concerns, as well as a rise in complaints about unruly canines. They also say that they need to balance the needs of multiple users that include tourists, hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers.

Though the NPS has walked away from previous negotiations and dropped other iterations of the plan, the agency may finally make good on its threats. They now appear poised to usher in the latest and most restrictive version of their dog management plan, despite loud opposition.

The brouhaha won’t end anytime soon, because the new plan restricts off-leash dog walking to seven areas and on-leash to 15 areas, distributed across the entire GGNRAan 80,000-acre park that spans across Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. Dogs are currently permitted on less than 1 percent of the land, and the proposed rules would slash off-leash dog walking by 90 percent and on-leash dog areas by 50 percent.

In Marin, that equates to about eight miles of land, with Rodeo Beach serving as the only location for off-leash dog walking. Dogs will be banned from areas that they currently frequent, including the South Rodeo Beach Trail, the Oakwood Valley Trail, the Miwok Trail and the Coastal Trail. The Muir Beach neighborhood, totally surrounded by the ocean and GGNRA, is especially hard hit, with dogs allowed on-leash on the beach, but banned on the surrounding trails.

Kristin, a dog advocate who attended a recent public meeting about the dog management plan at the Bay Model in Sausalito, doubts that Muir Beach residents plan on bringing their leashed dogs to the beach. “It’s like taking your children to Disneyland and not letting them ride the rides,” she said.

“They made a unilateral decision that doesn’t answer to the will of the local people that use the Golden Gate National Recreation Area,” said Mill Valley’s Michael Barti, who attended both the meeting and the Mighty Mutt March. “They’re obviously not listening to anyone.” That cry of fait accompli has been bandied about by dog advocates since the plan was unveiled in late February.

Christine Lehnertz, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, disputed this claim at the public meeting. “A decision has not been made and our effort to hear from the public is genuine,” she said.

Listen she did. Among those who spoke at the meeting was a man living near the Alta Fire Road in north Sausalito. “Unfortunately, I’ve been attacked and bitten by an off-leash dog and my wife is too scared to walk our kids on fire roads,” he said. “So, I really thank you for trying to protect us.”

Lehnertz and her staff will soon be inundated with opinions of opponents and proponents, as the public comment period—required by federal law—ended on May 25. When this article went to print, nearly 2,800 comments had been received.

Surprisingly, the public comments may not be as important as the dog advocates would like. “The public comment process is not a popular vote,” said GGNRA spokesperson Howard Levitt.

The GGNRA claims that it developed the new rules to meet the mandates of the NPS to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources for future generations and to better accommodate a variety of visitor experiences, among other reasons. That’s a tall order, considering that between 11 and 18 million people visited the GGNRA last year, depending on which official you ask.

Opponents of the plan poo-poo the reasons for it, claiming that the GGNRA is overreaching by throwing invalid issues into the mix—such as the potential decline of endangered and threatened plant and wildlife species, because the NPS has not conducted studies within the GGNRA to prove it. Instead, it has relied on scientific peer-reviewed studies that had nothing to do with the GGNRA.

Opponents also maintain that with more than 99 percent of the GGNRA prohibited to dogs, the majority of space is left for a dog-free park experience. Additionally, most tourists visiting the GGNRA take in the sights at Muir Woods, Alcatraz and other high-profile areas that the NPS advertises in travel magazines. These visitors are not typically found on the Alta Fire Road above Marin City or the Oakwood Valley Fire Road in Tam Valley—places where dogs currently play off-leash.

“This is important to us, because there aren’t that many places where you can walk your dogs off-leash and we hate to lose it,” said Corte Madera’s Candy Lee, who regularly walks her dog with a group of friends at Crissy Field. “What will we do? Stay at home with our dogs?”

Other dogs in this fight include local recreationists, lawyers pursuing relief in court, politicians and wealthy philanthropists. Attempting to untangle the web of special interests uncovers facts and misrepresentations from all sides.

With land in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties affected, groups opposing the plan have emerged in all three counties and several forged an alliance under the nonprofit umbrella organization Save Our Recreation. Marin County DOG (Dog Owner’s Group) is a supporting member and touts its mission as promoting responsible dog walking and advocating for dog-friendly trails and beaches in Marin County.

“The GGNRA has ignored the fact that the public has overwhelmingly opposed the dog management plan,” said Cassandra Fimrite of Mill Valley. “That’s why I sought out other people that felt the same way.”

Fimrite joined forces with Laura Pandapas, an outspoken activist from Muir Beach, to found Marin County DOG.

Pandapas said that the GGNRA General Management Plan, which was signed into effect in January of 2015, is also at play. “That plan transforms our recreation area into a wilderness area with 90 percent of the GGNRA reclassified as a ‘natural zone,’” she said.

She believes that reduced visitation is an unspoken GGNRA goal that could be achieved by instituting policies that restrict access, made possible by the natural zone designation.

Pandapas weaves a fascinating account of the GGNRA’s policy shifts, the whims of wealthy donors and abuse of power. A history lesson is necessary to understand the assertions.

It begins with the establishment of the GGNRA as an urban recreation area, which President Nixon signed into law in 1972. Changes were made to the law governing the NPS in 1978, which required all national parks to operate under the same mission statement, with no mention of recreation areas. Apparently, Congress did not intend for this law to turn an urban recreation site into a national park, as it later added that administrators must keep the original values and purposes of the areas and only Congress could direct any modifications.

A pet policy followed in 1979 that allowed walking with dogs on select portions of the GGNRA.  According to Mill Valley resident Huey Johnson, the pet policy was carefully crafted to allow dog walking, both on- and off-leash, while keeping most areas closed to dogs. Johnson ought to know; he served as the California Secretary of Resources during Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor, was president of the Nature Conservancy and helped derail the planned Marincello development that would have decimated the Marin Headlands.

The ’78 legislation and the ’79 pet policy are paramount to Pandapas’ belief that further dog restrictions betray the values of the GGNRA, unless ordered by an act of Congress.

In fact, she thinks that the tail may be wagging the dog in this case, because the NPS is broke and the vast majority of improvement projects in the GGNRA rely on donations from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a private, nonprofit fundraising partner for the GGNRA with a list of a board of trustees that reads like a who’s who in the Bay Area.

Since the Conservancy’s inception in 1981, it has raised close to $400 million dollars for the GGNRA. The improvements to Crissy Field were funded primarily by donations from the Haas family through the Conservancy. The expansion of the GGNRA across the tunnel tops on Doyle Drive is a large-scale project on the horizon, and the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation gave the Conservancy its largest single gift, $25 million, to help pay for the development.

Much to the chagrin of dog advocates and those who loathe the idea of privatizing funding for the GGNRA, none of the conservancy’s money goes for maintenance. Yet, with every improvement made, every visitor center built and every fancy plaque installed to honor a large contributor, maintenance costs increase significantly. The GGNRA is on the hook to pay for those expenses, because, as Conservancy spokesperson David Shaw admitted, it’s not glamorous for donors to sponsor cleaning bathrooms or taking out the trash.

Appropriations from Congress aren’t substantial enough to cover those costs. In fact, the GGNRA currently has a maintenance backlog of more than $278 million, and conservationists fear that the Conservancy contributions will dry up appropriations from Congress and leave the national park system vulnerable to the whims of donors, both private and corporate. The slippery slope may have begun already. Last month, Jon Jarvis, National Park Service director, disclosed a plan that allows NPS directors and deputy directors to solicit donations, a practice that had been banned.

Pandapas is concerned that the GGNRA can cut overhead with the new “natural zone” designation by excluding major user groups, starting with people walking their dogs. In that way, they could continue expanding and improving the park in areas chosen by the Conservancy board of trustees.

“It’s farfetched,” said David Shaw, who points out that the GGNRA sets the priorities and the Conservancy follows.

Levitt concurs. “That idea is floated by the flat earth society.”

Regardless, Pandapas and the dog activists soldier on. They claim that they’re not a fringe group, and they may be right. The Marin Humane Society estimates that 40 percent of the county’s households have at least one dog, and dog advocates have garnered support from the Board of Supervisors in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. In fact, last week the executive director of the Marin Humane Society wrote a letter to the GGNRA expressing her concern about the plan and her disappointment that the GGNRA refuses to consult with her agency, especially considering that they are Marin’s experts in dog behavior, both on- and off-leash.

Dog walking devotees trust that the GGNRA’s undoing will be its failure to provide scientific proof of the claim that dogs have negative effects within urban recreation areas, and they’re trying to obtain documents from the GGNRA to substantiate their assertion.

The GGNRA counters that evidence has been presented in the form of peer-reviewed scientific papers, to which the opposition responds that none were actually site-specific to the GGNRA.

A current lawsuit, filed by Bay Area dog and recreation groups, is pending against the National Park Service over their refusal to comply with document requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Mill Valley resident Chris Carr of the law firm Morrison & Foerster, thinks that the dog management plan, if adopted by the GGNRA, will likely end up in federal court.

The NPS hopes to consider the comments, make a decision at the end of the year and implement their final plan in early 2017.

The GGNRA Proposed Rule for Dog Management does not assert to represent all citizens. “The story and rationale behind the plan are always changing and they don’t have the necessary data to back up their claims,” Carr said.

As of now, the GGNRA is standing firm and the dog supporters aren’t going away. It may be years until the dust settles; nevertheless, Marin’s affinity for dogs and the desire to walk them in the GGNRA will continue.

“If it happens, we’ll have no place to walk our dogs or we’ll have to do it knowing we’re breaking the law,” Lee says of the proposed rule. “We might have to. Or, we’re stuck on sidewalks with a bunch of other people in an urban setting.”

Nikki Silverstein
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