Making National Park lands in the Bay Area accessible to all.

The following is an Op-Ed written by Nina Roberts, professor at San Francisco State University and director of the Pacific Leadership Institute, for the San Francisco Examiner. April 28, 2016. You can access it on the SF Examiner website.

Some say limiting dog access in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area may reduce diversity within the parks, but all sides in the debate must be considered — including parkgoers who wish to enjoy the outdoors without dogs. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/2011 AP)

For more than 20 years, I have been working on efforts across the country to enhance ethnic diversity in our national parks and other public lands, with a more recent focus on connecting students to outdoor experiences and conducting research to help parks design community engagement strategies. Perhaps nowhere have I seen such a commitment by park managers to welcome all visitors than our backyard; one of our country’s premier urban national parks, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

What I see in the GGNRA is among the best of our national parks: a willingness to welcome all visitors while protecting our nationally significant resources and heritage for generations to come. The list of efforts for how they welcome “all” is commendable extending the park from the Peninsula to Marin.

A recent op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner — “Diversity at stake in fight over GGNRA” — suggested promoting off-leash dogs throughout the GGNRA’s beaches, trails and picnic areas as a strategy to increase ethnic diversity in our parks. This suggestion, however, does not align with research I’ve conducted at the GGNRA, nor does it reflect a widely known body of literature that ethnically minority populations care deeply about environmental protection, support healthy, functioning ecosystems and enjoy outdoor recreation in parks.

While there is a level of appreciation for individual experiences across cultures, constraints research across demographic lines, especially among many ethnic minority communities, shows that dogs off-leash within the GGNRA and other public lands have been a barrier to a variety of visitors and potential visitors, alike. Off-leash dogs are especially a problem, given the notion of “being in voice control” is a theory at best and exudes naiveté, in general.

There is an increasing body of evidence revealing people who spend time with their dogs outdoors experience improved physical, mental and emotional health; yet, fears and discomfort of other visitors should not be overlooked in favor of dog owners having unlimited access in all locations. I love dogs; grew up with them my entire life. But where is the equity in all that? For example, there is no area along the exceptionally scenic Crissy Field beach for visitors to enjoy a picnic or families to recreate with their kids free of dogs and unwanted impacts, socially and environmentally.

Responsible dog owners should be reaching out to other dog owners who are not courteous, do not abide by park policies, who allow their pets to approach other visitors (assuming they “like” dogs or “my dog won’t hurt you”), and who approach park managers with antagonism rather than cooperation.

Similarly, the unfortunate circumstances of dog owners not picking up feces of their dogs is a huge and growing problem in urban environments, in general, including GGNRA. Apart from being unsightly and smelly, studies show the presence of dog feces in public places can been linked to a number of different diseases that are naturally transmitted between animals and humans. Unfortunately, the prevalence of “responsible dog ownership practices” across GGNRA are lacking, and this reality continues to exclude visitors who have as much right to enjoy all areas of the park, not just a few.

Furthermore, a major community concern about dogs being exercised in public places off leash relates to many risks and fears associated with dog attacks and bites. In some cases dogs off-leash merely generate extreme fear such as the breed or sheer size of unrestrained dogs can bite or attack, so being off-leash creates an unfair advantage to a privileged few. The issue is where and when, and what does it take for all dog owners to be more responsible in understanding why policies exist in the first place? There are a variety of places to exercise dogs’ off-leash, what does it take to abide by park policies or take these four-legged friends to other locations allowable by law?

Dogs are amazing companions and at GGNRA a special rule is being created to continue the use in a responsible manner that considers all users of the park. The new Dog Management Plan has been more than 10 years in the making, includes thousands of comments from the general public, and emanates valid and reliable ecological and social science research. Let’s move forward together so all people can truly enjoy our national park next door, and not just a select few who would rather be self-absorbed then work in harmony to ensure everyone gets to appreciate, experience and recreate in one of the finest national parks there is.

Snowy Plovers Chased at Ocean Beach

Snowy Plovers Chased at Ocean Beach, Photo © Alan Hopkins

Last month, the National Park Service announced a new Proposed Rule for Dog Management in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area – and with a little bit of improvement it would ultimately enhance the park experience for visitors, protect our fragile natural resources, and improve the park experience for visitors, wildlife, employees, and dogs.

The GGNRA has had many instances of dogs being attacked by wildlife, falling off cliffs, biting or threatening park visitors and wildlife, and disturbing sensitive habitats. This is because our off-leash dog play areas are unsafe and because leash laws have not been enforced in any meaningful way. But the new proposed rule would help ensure that our off-leash areas are safe and would enforce leash laws vigorously outside of these designated areas.

An essential step towards creating a better, more equitable park experience for all, the new proposed rule provides important safeguards for people, our pets, wildlife, and the entire park system by providing for specific areas where dogs may roam off-leash, including Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, and Crissy Field. In addition, the proposed rule provides for hundreds of additional miles of trails where dogs will be welcome on-leash and ensures that these areas are clearly demarcated so that park visitors can choose their own experiences at the GGNRA and not have the experience thrust upon them unwillingly.

Off-leash dogs areas are currently unsafe because they weren’t designed consistently with the best practices for good dog park design, which calls for a physical barrier. Better dog management in the GGNRA has been called for by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Bay Area residents, and animal welfare groups like the ASPCA, PETA, American Humane Association, Action for Animals, and Dogs Deserve Better. Even SFDOG, an organization that opposes the new dog management plan, admits that physical barriers are needed to protect dogs from hazards posed by vehicles, park users, other dogs, steep cliffs, etc.

Click here to submit a public comment saying that you support the new Proposed Rule for Dog Management as a step towards a more equitable park experience for all, so long as all dog play areas are fully enclosed with a physical barrier!

Leash laws and enclosed off-leash play areas are essential safeguards for us all.

Leash laws and enclosed off-leash play areas are essential safeguards for us all.

Off-leash dogs have been an ongoing problem in the GGNRA for many years. They can negatively impact people, our pets, wildlife, and park resources. Imperiled wildlife like the western snowy plover are frequently harassed by off-leash dogs; guide dog users are regularly interfered with—and occasionally attacked—by off-leash dogs; and perhaps most alarmingly, hundreds of off-leash dogs have been lost, injured, or killed when they fall off cliffs, run into traffic, or otherwise lose their owners.

It doesn’t have to be this way: the new proposed dog management rule provides important safeguards for people, our pets, wildlife, and the entire park system by providing for specific areas where dogs may roam off-leash, including Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, and Crissy Field; the proposed rule provides for hundreds of additional miles of trails where dogs will be welcome on-leash; and provides for a process to ensure that these areas are clearly demarcated—ideally with physical boundaries—so that park visitors can choose their own experienced at the GGNRA, and not have the experience thrust upon them unwillingly.

The policies within this plan have been supported Animal welfare groups like the ASPCA, PETA, American Humane Association, Action for Animals, and Dogs Deserve Better, who have called for leash law enforcement at the GGNRA.

In 2001 the California Department of Parks and Recreation conducted a study on safe off-leash dog play areas and concluded that this means enclosing the area with a physical boundary, so that dogs can’t run away from their owners and get into trouble, and so people can choose to enter these areas on their own terms.

This is a reasonable solution that is widely supported by Bay Area residents. According to a phone survey by Northern Arizona University conducted in 2001, 71% of Bay Area residents support enforcing the leash law at the GGNRA.

Encourage your local public officials to support the proposed rule for dog management in the GGNRA to create a more equitable experience for all park visitors!

Off-leash dogs have been an ongoing problem in the City for many years. They can negatively impact people, our pets, wildlife, and park resources. Imperiled wildlife like the western snowy plover are frequently harassed by off-leash dogs; guide dog users are regularly interfered with—and occasionally attacked—by off-leash dogs; and perhaps most alarmingly, hundreds of off-leash dogs have been lost, injured, or killed when they fall off cliffs, run into traffic, or otherwise lose their owners.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can make off-leash dog play areas that are safe for everyone, including our dogs.

The first step is to enforce leash laws. Already animal welfare groups like the ASPCA, PETA, American Humane Association, Action for Animals, and Dogs Deserve Better have called for leash law enforcement at the GGNRA.

The second step is to design off-leash dog play areas within the park that are safe for everyone. In 2001 the California Department of Parks and Recreation conducted a study on safe off-leash dog play areas and concluded that this means enclosing the area with a physical boundary, so that dogs can’t run away from their owners and get into trouble, and so people can choose to enter these areas on their own terms.

This is a reasonable solution that is widely supported by Bay Area residents. According to a phone survey by Northern Arizona University conducted in 2001, 71% of Bay Area residents support enforcing the leash law at the GGNRA.

There are few issues where you’ll find Sean Elsbernd and Aaron Peskin on the same side. But this is one of them. In 2005, both supervisors sent letters in support of leash law enforcement at the GGNRA. Encourage the Board of Supervisors to continue this collaborative work by requesting them to support good dog park design and vigorous enforcement of leash laws.