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Holiday Cheer for Dog Walking in the GGNRA

There is some unexpected holiday cheer this season for dogs and their people. In late October, the National Park Service announced it “permanently ended” its decade-long attempt to severely restrict dog walking in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.

Thanks in no small part to the strong grassroots effort by the dog community, popular places like Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, Muir Beach, and Marin Headlands trails will keep welcoming people with their dogs.

It’s been a long haul. The Park Service has been waging war on recreational dog walking since 2001 when it unilaterally rescinded established off-leash access. Federal courts had to twice order the Park Service to conduct a public rule-making process before closing off significant parts of the GGNRA.

Dogs have only ever been allowed on 1 percent of the GGNRA, an urban national recreation area that spans 80,000 acres across San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo counties. In the densely populated Bay Area, people rely on access to the open space in the GGNRA where dog walking has taken place for generations.

Congress had established the GGNRA to concentrate on serving the outdoor recreation needs of the metropolitan area. But that didn’t seem to matter to the Park Service.

During the past six years, the Park Service proposed severe restrictions on where you could walk your dog. Multiple versions of a Dog Management Plan changed little from draft to draft despite overwhelming opposition by the public and against the wishes of almost every local elected official. The final rule would have cut 90 percent of off-leash space and almost half of the on-leash trails.

Moreover, the 2,500-page Final Environmental Impact Study, which formed the questionable basis of the dog plan, lacked specific studies conducted at any GGNRA site that showed dogs impact the environment any more than people do. There wasn’t a significant environmental or safety reason to justify the draconian restrictions the Park Service relentlessly pursued.

In a surprise twist, the entire rule-making process came to a screeching halt. On Jan. 10, just days before the draconian rule was to be signed, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by a coalition of dog and recreation groups against the Park Service revealed allegations of misconduct and bias by GGNRA staff as personnel developed the plan. Emails released as a result of the lawsuit showed that GGNRA employees, including two superintendents and the GGNRA FOIA officer, used private email accounts to collude with special interest groups opposed to dog walking to generate public support for the proposed dog plan.

The emails also revealed intentional destruction of documents involved in the rule-making, a suggestion of purposefully omitting scientific data, and extreme bias on the part of the GGNRA against people with dogs and against dog walking as a recreational activity.

On Oct. 19, following a 10-month internal review, the Park Service concluded that the use of personal email was inappropriate and that
it was wrong to move the plan forward.

“We can do better, and in the interest of upholding the highest standard of transparency and trust with our Bay Area neighbors, we have determined that it is no longer appropriate to continue with the current dog management rule-making process at Golden Gate National Recreation Area,” National Park Service acting director Michael Reynolds said in a statement.

Clearly, the Park Service realized you cannot separate the plan from the tainted process.

The Park Service said that the GGNRA will continue to manage dog walking according to the 1979 Pet Policy, that allowed dog walking on that 1 percent of GGNRA land, including popular spots such as Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, Crissy Field, Baker Beach, Lands End, Muir Beach, Rodeo Beach, and various trails in the Marin Headlands, among other places. Permits for professional dog walkers with four to six dogs are still required.

One remaining question is what happens to dog walking on GGNRA land in San Mateo County, which was not part of the GGNRA in 1979 and therefore is not included in the 1979 Pet Policy.

Advocacy groups Save Our Recreation, Marin County DOG, Coastside DOG of San Mateo County, and SFDOG—the coalition of plaintiffs in the FOIA lawsuit that caused the withdrawal of the dog plan—are calling on the GGNRA to protect dog walking at sites in San Mateo County where people have traditionally walked with their dogs.

In the meantime, enjoy a walk with your dog in the GGNRA this holiday season without the looming threat that it could be your last one in the GGNRA.

Sally Stephens and David Emanuel are board members of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group, SFDOG.

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Main article photo by: Pete Markham-Creative Commons