The fuss over dogs in this national park? It’s your government at work

With conflict exploding in Syria and Afghanistan, and refugees escaping Middle Eastern turmoil for a not-always welcoming Europe, why would we spend much time worrying about whether dogs are allowed to run off-leash in a national park on the far western coast of the U.S.?

Good question, and one with which I wrestled as I delved into the dog controversy in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) for the PBS NewsHour.

The GGNRA is a national park established about 40 years ago during Richard Nixon’s presidency, after pressure from high-powered law makers like Rep. Phillip Burton and a host of environmentally minded citizens from the San Francisco Bay Area. They wanted to turn the Army’s spectacular Presidio of San Francisco — which would soon be decommissioned — into a national park, rather than sell it off to developers. In addition, they added other government-owned properties to the new park, including Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods, Fort Funston and assorted parcels around the bay and ocean. It would be a park like no other, cobbled together with less-than-pristine hunks of land, many of which had been used for other purposes, but which still contained some lovely territory and beaches that people would like to visit. Old Army houses in the Presidio would be rented out to pay for much of the upkeep.

San Franciscans had become used to using some of the spots, many unsupervised, for walking their dogs off-leash. In fact, the city had become a mecca for dog fanciers; some argue there are more dogs than children in the city.

The administrators of the new park took a long time to focus on the rules for dogs. But for the last 14 years, they’ve been studying what those rules should be. Here’s where the dogs-off-leash policy gets interesting and, hopefully, worthy of our attention.

The National Park Service (NPS) is a venerable arm of the federal government, designed to manage the likes of Yosemite, Yellowstone and Acadia. There are 408 units in all, and they are run out of Washington, D.C. Only a few are in urban areas, and none of those are as vast or varied as the GGNRA. And few are in areas as politically engaged as the San Francisco Bay Area.

So when the park service decided it was time to come up with a dog plan for its 80,000-acre park, it faced intense and long-lasting lobbying by dog lovers and environmentalists. What happened is a lesson in how government works, or doesn’t, depending on your point of view.

The issue is basically simple: Are off-leash dogs acceptable in a national park, or do they cause damage to the terrain and wildlife? In almost all national parks, dogs are outlawed: Keep them in the car, or don’t bring them. A few parks allow dogs on leash. The inclination of the NPS was to keep the rules uniform; this is a national park, it contains wildlife and fragile, vulnerable plant life that needs protection.

But the GGNRA is a recreation area, not your standard wilderness park. That’s how it was conceived: it gets 18 million visitors a year (many at Alcatraz and Muir Woods), some of whom like to ride bikes or horses, run and hike, fly hang gliders and walk their dogs. Dog owners, who formed into several advocacy groups, argued that this unique park had to be administered uniquely, allowing for dogs where they had been allowed for decades.

The Park Service started studying the issue. They came up with 22 separate areas that needed plans. They invited public comment, and got plenty. They came up with an Environmental Impact Statement including plans, and got more comment. Then they rewrote the EIS and generated more reports, both printed and on line. Thousands and thousands of pages of material is available for anyone needing to examine the whole controversy.

Overkill? It’s the way government works, it’s orderly and time-consuming and expensive. But is it worth all the effort? Why can’t they work faster and get it done? After all these years, their plans are still indefinite, though there are broad hints at what will likely be the outcome, eventually.

Nobody seems quite happy about all this. The park superintendent says she has to follow the law and is trying to come up with a compromise. The environmentalists want dogs’ presence to be curtailed, before more damage is done. At least, they argue, the dogs should be on leash, to protect the birds and the habitat. The dog lovers say they were promised freedom for their pets when the park was founded, and they don’t want to give it up.

And this is not simply a philosophical battle. In fact, what side you’re on may boil down to how you feel about dogs, and whether you and your close relatives or friends have them. Dogs are fun – even the park superintendent admits that. But that doesn’t solve the problem, if there is one. This may be headed for the courts and more delays.

Later this year the NPS will release yet another plan for dogs in the Golden Gate Recreation Area, and then there’ll be more public comment. In a year — though I wouldn’t bet on it — they expect to come out with a final set of rules. It’s your government at work, and Fido has been waiting 105 dog years to see where he can run off–leash.

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