A little over a month ago, my girlfriend and I became the proud owner of a rescue dog named Geronimo.
A scrawny 60 pounds with a bum hip and a head shaped like a carrot, he’s become, in a short time, our biggest joy and our greatest responsibility. Every day I walk Geronimo in the limited green space that has been deemed suitable for off-leash dog walking.
In a city of San Francisco’s size, finding adequate green space for all to enjoy is a challenge, and keeping those green spaces maintained is an even greater one. That’s where the Golden Gate National Recreation Area comes into play. A unit of the National Park Service, the GGNRA is a park that includes Fort Funston, Crissy Field, Ocean Beach, and Baker Beach, with the mandate “to provide for the maintenance of needed recreational space.”
But these days, that off-leash space is threatened. For reasons relating to the protection of its endangered environment, the GGNRA’s management has proposed an amended off-leash dog policy. The new rules, if passed, will eliminate 90 percent of the off-leash areas within the GGNRA, canceling out provisions of the city’s 1979 Pet Policy.
The new proposal outrages me. And I'm not alone in my feelings. On April 11 this year, more than 100 people appeared at a Board of Supervistors committee meeting to speak out against the proposal, and on April 26, San Francisco supervisors went on record opposing the federal proposal. These tracts of land are the city’s most open and accessible green spaces that allow dogs off-leash. If the GGNRA rejects our pooches, where will the 110,000 dogs in San Francisco go for exercise and outdoor time? I can see the viewpoint of non-dog-loving park-goers, the ones who don’t want their morning walks disturbed by uncontrolled dogs or sneakers marred by an errant pile of dog poop. I can also see where environmentalists would find fault with dogs clambering into the restricted areas that contain endangered species of flora and fauna. It’s a sensitive issue, and the only way I can see to dig further into it is to explore the parks at the center of this controversy.
On a sunny afternoon, Fort Funston seems like dog heaven. Split into two elevations by a stunning drop-off, the coastal park is made up of sandy dunes and cliffs, which afford varied terrain on which dogs can run. A favorite haunt of professional dog walkers and regular dog owners on any given day, Funston is saturated with pooches. I stroll with mygirlfriend, Alex, and for two canine lovers like us, it’s almost like a trip to the zoo. A gathering of Great Danes near the water fountain reminds me of a herd of bison. At the water line, retrievers and labs scramble in the frothy break of the ocean. Even with the echo of dog barks reverberating throughout the park, it’s serene here and I’m at a loss to see what danger these happy dogs are imposing on the park’s environment.
The GGNRA’s management sees the presence of rowdy dogs and their owners as a danger to the park, which it believes is a sanctuary for native species, like bank swallows and certain plants that grow in the dunes. But can the GGNRA really be called a sanctuary if it’s also intended to an urban recreation area for public use?
To find out more about the environmental threats dogs pose, I contact Mike Lynes, theconservation director at the Audubon Society, which is the primary supporter of the new GGNRA proposal. Mike explains via email that “improved dog management is necessary now because the number of park users (and dogs) has been increasing and is projected to continue to grow.” More dogs, Mike claims, mean more environmental problems, like threatened breeding grounds for the endangered snowy plover at Ocean Beach. “Off-leash dogs are more likely to harass wildlife and leave behind feces,” Mike tells me, which creates an unstable environment for the plover and a disgusting park experience for people. He points a finger at the dog-walking community; dog walkers potentially mean more dogs than can be kept in check by a single person. The fears related to herds of uncontrolled dogs seem reasonable. At Fort Funston, I saw unattended piles of dog poo, and I saw bumbling dog walkers barely controlling their packs of 10 or more dogs. If Mike is correct and the dog walking community is increasing in the GGNRA, something needs to be done.
I have an inside track on dog walkers, because Alex has worked as a professional dog walker for nearly half a year now. On a recent chilly morning, I head out with Alex to city-owned Stern Grove, which is considered to be a dog walkers’ park. With my email conversation with Lynes still fresh in my head, I expect to find hundreds of dogs running out of control, fighting, growling, and spreading their poop on the walking trails. But I find the park — much like Fort Funston — to be quiet, peaceful even. Shaped like a hull of a ship, it offers a lengthy stretch of grass down its middle, perfect for a pack of dogs to gallop down. On cold, misty day like this, Stern Grove’s sprawling, muddy field seems a veritable dog paradise for owners and pooches alike.
The walkers have a smattering of 20 or 30 dogs under impressive voice control. The dogs roughhouse, their owners chatter among themselves, and Alex, her pack of six dogs, and I leisurely saunter through the park. All in all, it’s a lovely morning, and the fears of the GGNRA management seem to be about a different city.
Stern Grove isn’t in the GGNRA though, it’s a city owned park, but even without the possible restrictions breathing down its neck, city parks like it are in danger as well, just for other reasons. I speak to Sally Stephens the chair of SFDOG, a group that firmly opposes the off-leash ban. Sally explains, “If the GGNRA proposal passes, all of a sudden all of those dogs who ran in those areas are going to end up in parks like Stern Grove, and then it’ll be Tsunami Friday every day.”
Tsunami Friday is the name that dog walkers have given to March 11, the day of the 8.9 earthquake in Japan, when the GGNRA shut down the beachside parks in case the tsunami hit our shores. “By 10:30 a.m., there were 200 dogs here. The parking lot looked like a rock concert.” The city parks aren’t big enough or properly equipped to put up with this sort of overflow. But if the looming proposal pushes through, Tsunami Friday could become the norm, and that’s dangerous. Less space means less exercise for the dogs, and less exercise means more behavioral issues — more fights and less control. As I peer down the long stretch of Stern Grove at the happy dog owners and the even happier dogs bounding about, I’m hard pressed to imagine this outcome, but the possibility is certainly there.
A few days later I’m standing in Dolores Park and Geronimo is sniffing the grass at my feet. He’s off leash and I’m watching him like a hawk to see if he poops or gets too frisky with a less friendly dog. The group of dog owners around me do the same. Our canines cavort and chase each other, and we stand in awkward circles and discuss our lives and our furry friends’ lives. From what I’ve seen, dog owners are responsible folks who love their animals and want nothing more than for their pets to have the best possible outdoor experience. With more dogs coming to the parks, though, this could change. The GGNRA wants to restrict our access because it believes that we are irresponsible and unappreciative of our public green spaces. This is disconcerting, but more so, it’s a wake-up call.
If we’re being put in the spotlight, we need to work even harder to train our dogs, pick up after them, and do whatever is in our power to make our parks happy places for everyone. The GGNRA, on the other hand, needs to scale back its proposal and work with the community to reach a compromise that meets the needs of humans, dogs, and native species. This compromise needs to start with a greater focus on dog owners respecting the tenets of the 1979 Pet Policy. For its part, the GGNRA needs to make strides to spend its limited resources on more rangers to enforce the policy, and on more educational programs to help dog owners comply. The better the education, the better chance we have of following the rules. Somewhere in the gleaming middle, the dog-owning community and the GGNRA are seeking a similar goal. Reaching that goal might not be easy, but it’s possible with compromise.
I throw the leash on Geronimo and wave goodbye to a loose gaggle of dog owners. I’ve got a full blue poop bag in one hand and Geronimo’s leash in the other. Geronimo’s tongue lolls from his mouth. I know he’s happy and well exercised, and in turn, this makes me smile.
Our city is full of parks, big and small, grassy and barren, GGNRA-run and otherwise. Get out there with your dog and respectfully enjoy them. I recommend Ocean Beach, followed by a late lunch at Outerlands (where your dog can join you outside). Comments about the GGNRA proposal can be submitted through the National Park Service website. Both SFDOG and Eco-Dog are great sources of information.