From The Independent
Tuesday, April 10, 2001
Republished on the Web by permission of the author and the San Francisco Independent, 1213 Evans Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94124.
By Edith Alderette
On Saturday morning, costumed pooches on one side of the city turned out with their humans to protest the exclusion of off-leash dog walking at Golden Gate National Recreation Area properties.
On the other, about 40 owners chose, rather than to debate the issue, to join forces with National Park Service workers to spruce up Crissy Field.
Despite the outward differences in the events, an underlying emotional current dominated both: Dog owners throughout the city are howling mad about the appearance of a new set of signs at GGNRA properties - signs that tell visitors that their rollicking pooches must be on a leash or they face a $50 fine.
The markers, say representatives of dog-owner groups, fly in the face of a January promise made by GGNRA officials to hold off for six months from making any decision on whether to continue to allow off-leash recreation at Fort Funston, Crissy Field, and Ocean Beach.
"We're angry and confused and feeling betrayed," said Anne Farrow of Fort Funston Dog Walkers, which organized Saturday's protest at Fort Funston, which was attended by more than 300 owners and dogs.
"I've been getting constant e-mails from within the dog groups about the signs. The reaction is just outrage," said Joan Boothe of Crissy Field Dog Walkers, which organized Saturday's cleanup at Crissy Field.
Farrow and Boothe were just two of many dog owners and animal-rights advocates who met with GGNRA superintendent Brian O'Neill last month to discuss a procedure to jointly develop a dog-walking policy that would satisfy owners' needs to let their pets get exercise as well as federal regulations that prohibit off-leash dogs on all National Park Service lands.
For the last 20 years, areas of Fort Funston, Crissy Field, and Ocean Beach have been leash-free zones - the few such remaining areas within the city.
The negotiations came as a result of a raucous public hearing on the GGNRA's pet policy held in the Presidio in January. At that event, O'Neill announced a cooling-off period of 120 days, during which his office would make no changes to current regulations on GGNRA lands.
But last Monday, GGNRA officials released an announcement stating that signs warning visitors that dogs must be tethered at all times would go up on April 12.
The signs, however, began appearing last Wednesday, April 4.
"We didn't know they'd be up that quickly," explained GGNRA spokesperson Roger Scott. "The assistant superintendent's office got permission to put the signs up, and the maintenance people got there early."
Scott said that he had called leaders of dog-owner groups to let them know about the signs a week ago. By Friday, he'd received enough angry phone calls to suspend further postings.
Many officials from those groups, however, said they had never received the GGNRA calls. And even if they did, they would have not had enough time to get the word out to members, they said.
"They certainly didn't call all the respective dog groups because I didn't get a call," Boothe said.
"We were not advised this was happening, that's just bulls---," said Linda McKay of Fort Funston Dog Walkers. "We're beating our heads over what in the world could have prompted them to do this. Is this just abysmal communications or do they want to start off negotiations like this - give us nothing and expect us to beg for crumbs?"
Scott said the signs went up because NPS officials in Washington, D.C., insisted that current federal guidelines be enforced during the current negotiations for a new pet policy. He also said that even though signs had been posted, not every visitor with an off-leash dog would be handed a citation.
"Our intent is not to give out citations starting tomorrow," he said. "Our intent is to be in compliance and to practice discretionary enforcement."
Dog owners balk at the explanation. Current rules, they say, stem from a 1979 GGNRA pet policy that gives them explicit permission to walk dogs off-leash at about 10 GGNRA areas in San Francisco and Marin - including Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, Lands End, and Crissy Field.
"Public perception is a major issue, and the signs going up look to the general public as if there's been a change," Boothe explained. "They say there's no change, and I'm prepared to take their word for that. The difficulty is that the vast number of people who walk their dogs don't have the same sources of information that we who are involved in the negotiations have. They just see the signs, and they see there's a change."
GGNRA officials have steadfastly insisted that, because the local pet policy contradicts federal guidelines, it was never legalized.
City officials not pleased
City officials are also not happy about the development. Leland Yee, who has been spearheading a drive to get the NPS to include the city in policy-change decisions, says that this latest development has further deteriorated trust that the NPS can keep its word.
"I think they owe people an explanation why, at the meeting at the Presidio, they were going to give at least 120 days of input and then summarily truncate that time line and unilaterally make decisions," Yee told the Independent. "They need to explain why every time they say something, they take their word back and do the opposite."
Yee has been the driving force of a movement to force the NPS into negotiations to rewrite its policies to allow more local oversight of the use of GGNRA lands, which the city gave to the NPS in 1975. If no settlement can be reached, he says, he's ready to take the NPS to court in an attempt to return the lands to the city.
"This thing with the signs has strengthened my resolve to press forward to maintain some kind of oversight or, absent that, take the property back," he said.
The closure of off-leash dog areas has become a hot-button issue with owners over the last year. Fort Funston, one of the most heavily used GGNRA properties and a favorite among dog walkers, has been the site of a string of closures. NPS officials have insisted the closures have been necessary to prevent erosion, defoliation, and threats to wildlife. Fort Funston Dog Walkers successfully sued the NPS late last year over the most recent closure, which involved a 12-acre section at the north end of the park that had been fenced off to protect a threatened species of bird.
Because of the suit, the NPS initiated a formal procedure to permanently close the section of land, and last month it erected fences.
According to Yee, such closures prompted City Hall interest in the matter. He expects negotiations between the City Attorney's Office and the NPS to begin shortly.