The Fight for Truth
Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Struggle for Off-Leash Rights in the GGNRA

by Sandy Lurins

In the March, 2007 issue of FETCH our cover story (“Off Leash Tug of War”) by Kris Larson presented positions held by groups and individuals in the ongoing debate about off-leash recreation in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). This issue is one that brings out deep passions in those who are involved. While there are some “sides” of the issue that seem obvious on the surface (some may erroneously reduce this issue to “off leash dog people vs. environmentalists”) there is much more to know. And the whole thing is confounded by the fact that the participants of the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee are not allowed to speak to the press, which might help all of us better understand the nuances of this complicated issue.

In the wake of our article, we got several letters from off-leash advocates who felt that we did not publish the true facts of the matter. And more critically, that by not challenging some of the assertions made by the off-leash opponents, FETCH fell short of its responsibilities, and in fact, hurt the off-leash cause.  Steven Golub, director of Ocean Beach Dog, wrote “If the media is not doing their job and holding the accusers to the facts/truth/science, they become the enabler -- the ones promulgating this injustice.”

Golub and many others are frustrated with the couching of the off-leash issue as part of the hot button issue of environmental protection. After all, we in the Bay Area are proud of our environmental awareness and activism, right? We all care about recycling, global warming, and protection of endangered species. But what if, as Golub writes,


…It has been almost impossible to get the truth on the issues (i.e., 1979 Pet Policy, emergency closures, Negotiated Rulemaking, reversion) out to the public because of a strong media bias which is afraid to challenge the radical environmentalism displayed by Brent Plater [and the Center for Biological Diversity], the GGNRA, the Audubon Society, the Calif. Native Plant Society, the Sierra Club, etc. with respect to off-leash recreation within approximately 1/2 of one percent of the GGNRA as codified by the 1979 GGNRA Pet Policy… Those that designate something as "anti-environment" damn well know that statement's far-reaching prejudice and its power. I suggest that this is analogous to "playing the race card,” a technique which has been used effectively by various special interest groups in order to terminate important public debates…. Unfortunately, in these circumstances, the public is cheated out of a fair debate on the subject matter. The side making the racist accusation ends up the winner by default.


The frustration of the off-leash advocates mounts even higher because some of the recent “emergency closings” turn back historical agreements for the use of the public lands. As the human and canine populations of the city depend on these lands for many shared uses, prime among them space to exercise, this turn of events is unacceptable to Golub:

As you may know, the 1979 GGNRA Pet Policy was arrived at through a process of compromise and consensus amongst the GGNRA, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and other stakeholders in an attempt to honor the enabling legislation of the GGNRA, as well as to balance the needs/requirements of the park's natural resources with the health and well-being of our best friends. I am confident that at this point you are familiar with S.F. Public Health Ordinance Article I; Section 41.12; Item 5; which states all dogs must be provided with adequate exercise. "Adequate exercise" means the opportunity for the animal to move sufficiently to maintain normal muscle tone and mass for the age, size and condition of the animal…. The owners of the 150,000 plus dogs in San Francisco must rely upon access to public space to obey the aforementioned law.


In the time since the Negotiated Rulemaking process began, additional pressures have come into play for urban dogs. Golub continues:

Conscientious and law-abiding dog guardians will be forced into making the unenviable decision as to which law they will break: the GGNRA leash law, the SFRPD Park leash law or the SF Health Code dog exercise ordinance. I trust that you can see the civil rights issues at stake here.

Know More, Take Action

Even if you live in Alameda, St. Helena, or Mill Valley, remember that these disputed lands are currently in federal hands, and that the policies affect your right to enjoy these public spaces with your dog off-leash. You may want to direct your commentary to Senator Dianne Feinstein (who was on the SF City Council when the land was granted to the GGNRA) attend one of the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee's Open Houses:

Tuesday, May 22 - GGNRA Headquarters, Fort Mason, Building 201, San Francisco

Tuesday, September 18 - Pacifica

Tuesday, November 27 - GGNRA Headquarters, Fort Mason, Building 201, San Francisco

All meetings will be held from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Information confirming the time and location of all open houses or cancellations of any can be received by calling the Office of the Public Affairs at (415) 561-4733 or (415) 561-4730.

Fact vs. Fallacy

During the exchange of emails we asked OBD to provide a summary of the issues its members felt should be clarified for FETCH readers—in particular, what facts needed to be brought forth that either weren’t clear, or were misrepresented in the information we were provided by the off-leash opponents. OBD member Suzanne Valente took the time to lay out some of those specifics:

1. Mark Massara, an attorney who spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club at the Animal Commission meeting, continues to erroneously state that the Western Snowy Plover (WSP) is endangered. The Western Snowy Plover is not endangered, merely threatened.  And yes, there is considerable scientific controversy as to whether even the “threatened” classification is warranted.  Two studies completed under the government’s supervision would indicate that the Snowy Plover should not be listed as a species requiring protection at all.

The only reason the WSP remains listed is that there are those in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) who want to see the WSP repopulate all areas they originally lived in, including the coastal areas.  The desire to keep the WSP as a protected species is not warranted by the numbers of WSP—the inland population is thriving, and has sufficient numbers to warrant removal of protections.  The inland and coastal populations are genetically identical (confirmed by the study your author quoted, as well as another study commissioned by the government because they were unhappy with the results of the first study). 

My personal issue with this is that if the public understood that they were sacrificing thousands of miles of coastal access to protect a bird that is in no danger of extinction, they might not see the wisdom of the USFWS decision.  My problem with the scientific part of the USFWS desire to repopulate the coast is that often the WSP is not in the same previous locations because habitat changes have occurred which are not always due to the transgressions of man.  For example, at Ocean Beach, the ongoing erosion of the beach is most responsible for the loss of habitat, not off-leash dogs.

The GGNRA and others in the government are currently pursuing a pattern of “creating habitat” in many park areas to try to change this, but this process is fraught with danger.  There are always “unintended consequences” of wholesale changes to an ecosystem.  Please remember the devastation that followed the hunting and almost complete elimination of wolves from much of our wilderness at the behest of ranchers.  Only with the successful reintroduction of wolves have we seen the health of these ecosystems re-established.  No one predicted the cascade of environmental changes that would have resulted from the elimination of this one species.

We have had a taste of the GGNRA’s failed “habitat creation” policy at Fort Funston, where the GGNRA’s obsession with creating “native plant habitat” decimated the State-threatened bank swallow colony that has been observed in the cliffs off Fort Funston since 1905.

2. The Western Snowy Plover is never expected to nest or breed at Ocean Beach despite best management practices. Also, the WSP does not nest or breed at Crissy Field or Fort Funston. [Although] Mark Massara told the Commission that prohibition of off-leash dogs at Ocean Beach would allow the plover to nest and breed again at Ocean Beach, the USFWS’s own management plans for the WSP indicate there is no expectation that the WSP will ever nest or breed at Ocean Beach or any location in San Francisco City and County.

3. The option for [reverting the GGNRA lands granted by the City of San Francisco, back to the City] does not require the approval of the SF Animal and Welfare Commisssion, nor the Board of Supervisors, nor the Congress. 

The ability to revert the properties is through enforcement of the deed restrictions.  In reality, the City Attorney is the individual who must agree the legal basis for reversion exists—and in 2001, the City Attorney believed reversion was a legal option for the City and was actively discussing reversion with the GGNRA and the City Supervisors. 

If today’s City Attorney does not have the will to undertake such a process, the citizens of San Francisco can sue the City to enforce the deed restrictions.  The City was only able to transfer park properties to the GGNRA after the people approved that action by approval of Proposition F in 1973.  Certain promises were made to the citizens at that time as to the use of these properties should they approve the transfer.  These promises are at the heart of the dispute.  So, it is critical to impress upon the reader that this circumstance is within the control of the citizens, as it should be, not bureaucrats.  It is harmful to the citizens if they are led to believe they have no rights, when in fact the outcome here is in the hands of the citizens.