Leashes ahead for dogs at beaches

09/12/2013

The second draft of a dog management plan for the sprawling Golden Gate National Recreation Area was released last Friday with some concessions for pet owners and sizable protections for bird watchers, picnickers, runners and other visitors intent on a dog-free experience. 

The proposed rules for 22 areas of federal parkland, including eight in Marin, have been more than a decade in the making. They represent what the National Park Service has called a “balanced” compromise between the recreation area’s mission to provide a variety of experiences and the needs of a loud contingent of dog lovers who unleashed thousands of letters following the first draft plan. 

And although some of those park-goers may be unsatisfied with the proposed seven areas set aside for off-leash dog walking, those areas are “seven more than any other national park in the country,” said Howard Levitt, director of communications for GGNRA.

Federal law prohibits off-leash dogs in national parkland, but a citizen’s advisory commission established by Congress with the recreation area’s founding in 1972 decided to forgo that law. They cited the diverse lands and their respective former uses brought together under GGNRA’s umbrella—lands formerly owned by the City of San Francisco, the state and the military—as reason for the exception.

The commission’s pet policy was never codified into law, but it was followed as such. And although user conflicts began to emerge almost immediately, it was not until the late 1990’s that efforts to protect threatened bank swallows from roaming dogs at Fort Funston pressed the issue. 

The roping off of 12 acres for the bird sparked a lawsuit against the park, which, after losing that battle, took steps to shift from the informal pet policy to standard federal law—again sparking a lawsuit in which the plaintiffs once more prevailed.

Even then, with “public participation as part of our DNA,” Mr. Levitt said, the park service sought a consensus decision by bringing together stakeholders for a “negotiated rule-making” process. But two years and 18 meetings produced only accusations of bad faith, and the group disbanded. That’s when the park service, in 2001, turned to the “tried and true” method of writing its own rules and putting them out for public comment.

The draft released last week was revised from a January 2011 draft after officials pored over 8,000 comments sent by more than 4,700 authors, the majority of which supported greater allowances for dogs. 

Under the preferred alternative, one of six alternatives outlined in the plan, leashed dogs would be allowed at Muir Beach, including on the connecting bridge and the proposed Muir Beach Trail. Loose fencing would serve as a visual barrier around the sensitive lagoon and dune areas, where dogs are prohibited. The 2011 draft plan banned dogs everywhere except in the parking lot at Muir Beach.

Dogs would continue to be prohibited at Stinson Beach, which is designated as a swimming area and therefore prohibitive of dog-walking under park regulations. Leashed dogs would be allowed on a trail connecting to Upton Beach, a bordering pet-friendly county beach to the north, and a fence would separate the trail from the prohibited area. Leashed dog walking would still be allowed in the picnic and parking areas. 

Currently dogs can be off-leash throughout Homestead Valley, at Rodeo and South Rodeo Beaches, at the Marin Headlands and on Headlands trails. The proposed plan would allow leashed dogs at Homestead Valley and on Headlands trails; prohibit dogs altogether at South Rodeo Beach and on interior trails at the Headlands; and allow off-leash walking at Rodeo Beach. That beach would be the only scenic place where Marin County park-goers could let their furry friends run loose.

San Francisco’s Crissy Field, Fort Funston, Fort Mason and Ocean Beach—where the debate over dog management has been the most heated—would be split into distinctly marked areas to accommodate differing interests. 

The park service hopes the plan will reduce user conflicts, improve visitor safety and provide an easily explainable and enforceable policy, all while protecting natural resources. 

Besides its primary goal of balancing user desires, the plan notes there are environmental impacts from dogs. They can tamp down soil and trample vegetation; increase the amount of nutrients in the soil through their waste; infect wildlife with their waste; carry exotic plant seeds or otherwise alter the dispersal of seeds; and disturb resident wildlife. The recreation area houses more federally protected threatened and endangered species than any other unit in the national park system. 

The current draft eliminates a contentious element of the 2011 plan: a system of “automatic triggers” by which lack of compliance in an area would force the conversion of that area to the next most restrictive category. 

Mr. Levitt said the plan outlines various ways to encourage compliance, with the end goal of everyone voluntarily following the rules. He admitted there will be a greater emphasis on monitoring than on enforcement, but said that “we are prepared to enforce [the rules] if we have to.”

The plan comes with an estimated $2.5 million pricetag—compared to the current $430,000 spent on enforcing dog rules—a cost Mr. Levitt said the agency is prepared to shoulder. 

 

Copies of the plan and environmental review are available at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/dogplan, and at the Civic Center, Corte Madera and Fairfax branches of the Marin Free Library, among others. Public comments should focus on the plan’s updated elements, and will be accepted until December 4. Public meetings to discuss Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Dog Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement will be held on Wednesday, November 6 from 4 to 8 p.m. at Tamalpais High School, in Mill Valley. The plan is available here for comment: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/dogplan.