The Board of Supervisors will vote today on District Supervisor Scott Wiener’s resolution to oppose the National Park Service’s new restrictions on dogs at federal parklands.
Although largely symbolic, the resolution is one that has plenty of support from dog owners who rallied to Wiener’s support at a recent hearing and agreed with his vision of a dog-eat-dog world if access is limited.
“If this plan goes through, the impact on San Francisco parks would be significant,” Wiener said at last week’s hearing. “Our park system is very well used, and the dog play areas are so heavily used already to the point where there is tension.”
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which encompasses nearly 80,000 acres of land spread among San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo Counties, is the only federal park in the country that allows dogs. It is a benefit pet owners have come to rely on at Fort Funston, Crissy Field, Land’s End, and Baker and Ocean beaches.
Initially released in January 2011, the Dog Management Plan left only 10 percent of the original off leash areas and elicited 4,700 letters and a resolution from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors opposing it. That proposal banned dogs outright at Muir Beach, limited dogs to the northern most third of Ocean Beach, banned dogs on the East Beach of Crissy Field and significantly limited the off leash area at Fort Funston.
The revised plan uses additional data, such as evaluating the use of fencing to manage dogs rather than an outright ban. It also includes an analysis of the possible impact to city parks and an allowance for commercial dog-walkers in some areas of the park. The plan provides for seven areas where dogs can roam off leash, including portions of beaches and fields.
Still dog owners oppose it.
At the hearing, owners shared impassioned stories of idyllic park visits with their dogs as well as outrage at the park service’s proposal. There are some 180,000 dogs in San Francisco, according to an estimate by the Society for Prevention and Cruelty to Animals.
“This isn’t just about politics, it’s a quality of life issue,” said San Francisco resident Felicia Allen. “The dog population has only enhanced my experience living here, and now that’s being threatened.”
While the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a national park, people regard it differently because of its proximity to the city. The park adopted the Pet Policy in 1979, designating off-leash areas in large portions of Fort Funston, Crissy Field, Ocean Beach and Muir Beach.
Over the years, as more environmental and conservation work in the area has revealed an enhanced need to protect the natural resources and wildlife of the park, that policy has been challenged. Park officials and environmental advocacy groups say that they have a duty to protect the region’s biodiversity, which they believe is threatened by dogs. Wiener, however, disagreed.
“This is not a pristine national park in an isolated area. It is intertwined in an urban landscape.”
Echoing that sentiment was Sally Stephens, chair of Animal Control and Welfare.
“This would make sense in a place like Yosemite, but not in San Francisco,” she said.
What makes restrictions hard to accept is the fact that dogs have been walked in the national park area before it ever had such designation. Beginning in the early 1970s, land formerly owned by the Army and Navy was transferred to the city of San Francisco, which later became parkland. In 1975, San Francisco agreed to transfer Fort Funston, Ocean Beach and other city owned lands to the federal government under the assurance that the rules regarding dog use would remain the same, as well as recreation on a level close to that of city parks.
In the decades since, however, the National Park Service has attempted to designate more areas as ecologically sensitive, limiting access to both humans and dogs.
“Now they treat ‘recreation’ like it’s a bad word,” said Stephens.
Critics argue that the restrictions are too aggressive and will overburden the other parks in the city.
Lindsay Kefauver, who is vice chair of SF Dog, a dog owners group, lives half a block from Dolores Park and has visited it every day for the past 40 years. More dogs there, she said, would be extraordinarily “uncomfortable” for everyone.
Wiener said the second draft is a mere “cursory analysis” of the possible impacts to city parks, and pointed to two of the busiest parks in the city – Mission Dolores and Duboce Park – as prime examples of residents and their dogs already competing for space.
“There can be up to 100 dogs in an hour at Upper Duboce Park,” he said. “Take away the spaces in Fort Funston and Crissy Field, he said, and “those dogs are not going to go away.”
Brandy Kuentzel, the SPCA’s director of advocacy, pointed out that many dog owners, such as senior citizens or disabled people, rely on off-leash areas to get their dogs adequately exercised since they cannot run or walk with them for extended periods of time.
The San Francisco Recreation and Parks department does not have an official stance on the plan, but spokespeople expressed the need for the close communication between the city and federal park agencies in order to reach a balanced plan.
“The public does not make distinctions between which park lands are managed by whom,” said Sarah Ballard, Public Affairs for SF Rec and Park. “They just know where they like to go with their dogs, and if there become problems in the parks, then everyone isn’t working together efficiently.”
If it is passed during today’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Wiener’s resolution simply puts the city and county of San Francisco on record as officially opposing the proposal.
While invited, representatives from the national park were not present at last week’s hearing.
“We did not attend because we saw no useful purpose in participating in a meeting where the outcome was predetermined,” said Howard Levitt, spokesperson for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The plan is not expected to be implemented until 2015, when the Department of the Interior has the final say to adopt it as federal rule. The national recreation area must first allow for an additional public comment period before formalizing a plan that it will submit for federal review.
Levitt expressed concern that many who oppose the plan may be misunderstanding the full impact. For example, many portions of parkland that will see restrictions still allow for off-leash areas, albeit smaller. Also, Levitt said it was noteworthy that there are areas currently being used by off-leash dogs that were never technically allowed, it just hasn’t been enforced.
“I know this is characterized as a ban on dogs, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Levitt said. “Every park user wants to use the same area, whether that means for playing with their dogs or bird watching or having a picnic. We don’t have the luxury of being able to see the issue through a single lens. Our challenge is to provide for a variety of user groups and experiences.”