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Can dog lovers and environmentalists find common ground in this urban national park?

The urban, 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area is unlike all other national parks: For 14 years, it's been the site of a war over dogs, and whether they can run leash-free in certain areas. Special correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight, a very different kind of political battle, this one over dogs, and where they should be able to run free.

    Special correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Every morning before work, high-tech entrepreneur Samir Ghosh and his wife join their 2-year-old son on the floor of their San Francisco townhouse, playing with Soki, their 10-year-old Portuguese water dog.

  • SAMIR GHOSH, Dog Owner:

    People love their dogs like their children. My family, we don't do things without the dog. We don't go to the movies because you can't bring the dog. I moved to San Francisco because I think of it as a progressive place and very dog-friendly.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But Ghosh is worried that the places he takes his dog for a walk or a swim, like Crissy Field, a former Army airstrip, may soon be off-limits for off-leash dogs like Soki.

  • SAMIR GHOSH:

    Good girl.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Those places are within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an 80,000-acre national park in and around San Francisco, that, unlike all other national parks, has allowed dogs to run free in some areas for four decades.

  • SAMIR GHOSH:

    My understanding is that they're going to make it completely illegal for dogs in this section. Let me ask you, do you think it is reasonable to say you can't play fetch with your dog?

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Of the 408 units in the national park system, only a handful are in urban areas, and only one, this one, is having (AUDIO GAP) dogs. In fact, it's not a battle. It's a war.

    It's been going on for 14 years. On one side is the National Park Service, which has been trying to come up with a new dog policy.

    Christine Lehnertz is park superintendent.

  • CHRISTINE LEHNERTZ, Superintendent, Golden Gate National Recreation Area:

    Many of the dogs in this park and their owners or guardians behave well within the law. But there are enough conflicts that we can't let these go unaddressed.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The Park Service says it can document 95 dog bites and attacks over four recent years, plus 2,700 other dog incidents, in addition to many that are never reported.

    And it points to a loss of native vegetation in several areas where dogs have been allowed off-leash.

    Cindy Margulis is a birder and executive director of the Golden Gate chapter of the Audubon Society.

  • CINDY MARGULIS, Golden Gate Audubon Society:

    Dogs are notorious for trampling vegetation, for scaring off species, particularly shorebirds. And that means you have got to be super careful where there's wildlife or sensitive areas, and also understand folks are entitled to be there without having their experience interfered with by dogs.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    On the other side are groups of dog owners who have demonstrated at Park Service meetings over the years. They charge that some officials have tried, unsuccessfully, to get the word recreation taken out of the name of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, or the GGNRA.

    Sally Stephens runs the San Francisco dog owners group.

  • SALLY STEPHENS, San Francisco Dog Owners Group:

    They're trying to get rid of the recreational mandate. We were promised this land would stay with the traditional recreational uses of the land. And now they're going back on their promises. Basically, what the Park Service is planning to do will amount to the largest loss of public access in the GGNRA's history.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    While most national parks include wilderness areas, this battleground here is a stunning compilation of government-owned properties. The Presidio of San Francisco, a repurposed Army base, is part of the park, as is Fort Funston, a coastal battery now used for hang gliding and dog walking along popular trails near the beach.

    And there's Ocean Beach, where the continent ends. Off-leash dogs are allowed, but would be curtailed under proposed rules. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area also includes Alcatraz Island and, across the Golden Gate bridge, Muir Woods and Muir Beach, where Huey Johnson often walks his dog off-leash.

    Johnson, a longtime environmentalist, was in on the early planning of the park, but today he's critical of the management, which wants to eliminate most of Muir Beach as an off-leash area.

  • HUEY JOHNSON, Resource Renewal Institute:

    Park Service management has just not been able to handle an urban park concept. In national parks, Yellowstone, I wouldn't have a dog loose there. But here, that's why it's here for.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But Amy Meyer was in on the parks' founding too, and she supports the Park Service as it wrestles with what she believes are too many dogs.

  • AMY MEYER, Co-Founder, Golden Gate National Recreation Area:

    This national park brings a huge number of people from all over the world. They expect that they're going to see wild animals, they're going to see habitat that fosters birds. They're going to want to do hiking, biking. And most of those things are not fully compatible with free-running dogs.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Meyer says the population of the area has tripled since the 1970s, when the park founders endorsed off-leash areas. Today, the park gets nearly 18 million visitors a year, most in the nation.

    Have you personally seen any damage that the dogs have done?

  • AMY MEYER:

    Most certainly. Just watching the dogs rip up the dunes at Fort Funston — there hasn't been a rabbit on Fort Funston there since the mid-1990s.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    During the many years the Park Service has been studying the situation, it has compiled thousands of pages of documents, studies, comments, revised plans.

    Is anyone going to read all this?

  • CHRISTINE LEHNERTZ:

    That is volume one. This is volume two. The National Park Service is a federal agency, and we do have to follow federal laws. We can't cut corners.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Lehnertz, the park superintendent, says she is trying to come up with a compromise, suited to an urban park.

  • CHRISTINE LEHNERTZ:

    We do manage Golden Date differently because it's in an urban area. But we have certain mandates, as a federal agency, that we have to meet in every area.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Still, she says, when the rules come out:

  • CHRISTINE LEHNERTZ:

    The GGNRA will have the most liberal policies for allowing dogs off-leash. We think dogs are great. We don't want to take that away.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The Park Service will announce new proposed regulations this fall, then allow for more public comment, and come out with a final set of rules in about a year.

    But the topic is so contentious, it could well invite lawsuits that might delay it even further.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Spencer Michels in San Francisco.

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