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Dog owners object to proposed new leash rules for Northern California parks

January 24, 2011 |  3:33 pm

Dogs roam off-leash at Crissy Field in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — A new federal proposal to tighten leash rules on parkland in and around San Francisco has many dog owners barking mad.

The 2,400-page plan released this month by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the country's largest urban national park, would mandate leashes in open spaces where dogs currently roam untethered. Some popular dog-walking areas would be closed to canines entirely, partly to protect wildlife and native plants.

The proposed rules cover about 14,000 acres of the 75,000-acre recreation area, which includes portions of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties and is the only national park in the country to allow dogs off-leash.

Since it was published Jan. 14, the document has triggered a flurry of blogging, newspaper columns and calls to action among the dog-owner community. Many expressed concern that recreation officials are trying to push dogs out of the 39-year-old park entirely.

"I have a feeling they don't want us in there at all," said Suzanne Valente, who takes her dog to Ocean Beach, one of the few remaining off-leash areas. Under the proposal, one section of Ocean Beach would still allow unleashed dogs, but another would become a dog-free zone.

Dogs also would be banned from parts of San Francisco's Crissy Field and Fort Funston and all of Marin County's Muir Beach -- sites that have traditionally been favored destinations for dog owners.

With the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, dogs play in the water on the beach at Crissy Field Park management officials strenuously deny any sinister motive behind the proposal.

"This is not a plan to ban dogs" in the recreation area, said park spokesman Howard Levitt. "Once enacted, this is a 20-year plan to try to balance the needs of a huge variety of users while also protecting natural resources."

The park receives an estimated 16 million visitors each year and has never had formal guidelines for managing dogs, Levitt said. Most of the current rules stem from a parkwide pet policy developed in 1979 -- a set of recommendations that was never brought in line with federal regulations governing dog-walking in national parks.

"If you ask 100 people in this park, not one of them could tell you what the rules are on dogs," Levitt said.

The plan has received a warm welcome from nature lovers who have long complained that frolicking dogs pose a threat to the 36 rare and endangered plants and animal species that inhabit the park.

One such animal is the Western snowy plover, a rare shorebird that is considered threatened and protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2006, the recreation area enforced an emergency rule to protect the birds, which currently number less than 100. It requires dogs to be kept on leash at Ocean Beach and Crissy Field for 10 months every year from July through May.

Beyond frightening and sometimes killing wildlife, dogs affect how humans experience the park, said Mike Lynes, the conservation director for Golden Gate Audubon Society. The Berkeley nonprofit has been one of the most vocal advocates for environmental preservation in the park.

Lynes said many people, including his wife, feel uncomfortable around dogs and avoid areas of the park with a large canine presence.

But dog owners say environmental preservation and responsible dog-walking are not mutually exclusive.

"We can all get along and find ways to coexist," said Sally Stephens, chair of San Francisco Dog Owners Group, a nonprofit with about 900 paying members.

Stephens said the park was never meant to be a "pristine wilderness," but instead was created as a multi-use natural resource for a dense urban population.

Off-leash dog walkers and strollers enjoy an afternoon at a beach near Crissy Field

"This land was originally intended to be a recreation area with a true balance between recreation and environmental preservation, but the balance over the years has shifted away from recreation," she said.

Stephens' organization and other local groups have been working together to analyze the dog management proposal and say they plan to offer alternatives to the changes they deem overly restrictive. The mandatory 90-day public comment period ends April 14.

The recreation area would welcome such suggestions -- the more detailed, the better, said park management assistant Shirwin Smith.

"That's the only type of comment that will help us shape anything different," she said.

Once finalized, the dog management plan must be approved by the National Park Service's Pacific West regional office. The new rules likely will be implemented in mid-2012, recreation officials estimate.

Even if all of the proposed restrictions are adopted, the park still will offer dog owners more options than they would find at any of the country's 393 other national parks, Levitt said.

"We will remain, at the end of the day, the most dog-friendly national park in the United States," he said.

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Reader videos: Off-leash dog parks and beaches in Southern California

-- Robin Hindery, Associated Press

Top photo: Dogs roam off-leash at Crissy Field in San Francisco. Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press

Middle photo: Dogs play on the beach at Crissy Field. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Bottom photo: Dog walkers and their dogs at a beach near Crissy Field. Credit: Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times

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