The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has been trying to change its name to the Golden Gate National Parks for years. Why?  Because they want to change the very purpose of the GGNRA.

Over 40 years ago, Congress created the GGNRA to be a recreation area for a densely populated, urban area. Now, the NPS wants to change it from a recreation area to a pristine wilderness area. The new proposed General Management Plan will turn 90% of GGNRA lands into special "natural zones" and visitors will be restricted on every part of the park, not just dog walkers.

It must be clarified: There is no such legal entity as the “Golden Gate National Parks.” (And, unfortunately, the name has created confusion about the status of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.) Yet Ms. Meyer, the Conservancy, and even the desperate-for-funds GGNRA have applied the false “National Parks” name as a basis for altering public use—including dog walking—in the GGNRA.
— Huey Johnson

The Creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)

San Francisco and the Bay Area are densely packed urban areas. For decades, there has been a critical shortage of recreational open space in the area. This is one reason San Francisco took control of Fort Funston from the US Army in 1962. In a document entitled “The Proposal to Acquire Fort Funston As A Recreation Area,” it was noted that San Francisco had about one-half of the minimum open space recommended by the National Recreation Association.

When other coastal open space once owned by the Army was threatened with development, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 to “preserve for public use and enjoyment” those areas. The first mandate in the statute that created the GGNRA was to “provide for the maintenance of needed recreational open space.” Click here to read the legislation that created the GGNRA

A report issued by the US House of Representatives when the GGNRA was created noted that the population density of San Francisco was 16,500 per square mile, compared with 5,000 per square mile for Los Angeles. The House Report added, “While it is some comfort and compensation to live in a city as interesting, clean, and attractive as San Francisco, it must be noted that the opportunities for outdoor recreation in broad open spaces are severely limited.” The new legislation “will not add significantly to the open lands in the city, but it will ensure its continuity as open space for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations of city dwellers.” [H.R. Rep. No. 1391, 92nd Congress, 2nd Session, 1972]

The report contains clear evidence the GGNRA was created to provide recreational open space:

• “This legislation will … [establish] a new national urban recreational area which will concentrate on serving the outdoor recreational needs of the people of the metropolitan area.”

• “Action is required if … the relatively natural areas within the city are to be available to satisfy the growing need for outdoor recreational opportunities.”

• “The objective of H.R. 16444 is to assure the preservation of open spaces presently prevailing within the proposed recreation area, to provide public access along the waterfront, and to expand to the maximum extent possible the outdoor recreation opportunities available to the region.”

During the hearings into the creation of the GGNRA, various recreational activities historically taking place on land within the proposed GGNRA boundaries were listed, including sunbathing, picnicking, horseback riding, swimming, hiking, fishing, and off-leash dog walking.

Transfer of San Francisco Park Land to the GGNRA

Nearly all of the GGNRA land in San Francisco was once city parkland. In November 1973, San Franciscans voted on whether to turn over 500 acres of city parkland – Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, Lands End – to the GGNRA.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 25th, a few weeks before the election, William J. Whalen, superintendent of the national recreation area, said the GGNRA “intends to preserve the general character and present use of the various parks that could be affected by passage of Proposition F.” Residents were assured there would be no change in allowed recreational usage just because the land would be in the GGNRA. Proposition F passed.

Still, City officials worried about the loss of local control of the parklands. A Memorandum of Understanding between the City and County of San Francisco and the United States dated April 29, 1975 requires the General Superintendent of the GGNRA to “formally notify and consult with the Department of City Planning on all proposed construction plans… or substantial alteration of the natural environment” of the City’s parklands that were being transferred to the GGNRA. The MOU set forth a process for San Francisco to convey its “agreement, disagreement or suggested modification of the proposed construction plans”. The MOU adds that the “General Superintendent [of the GGNRA] shall make every effort to accommodate the City’s recommendations.” Click here to read the April 29, 1975 MOU between San Francisco and the GGNRA

San Franciscans deeded their beachfront park lands to the GGNRA because they believed that, as promised by GGNRA officials at the time, recreational uses would be continued and the City would be consulted on future changes within the GGNRA. Unfortunately, the GGNRA has not lived up to its promises, and has made major changes in park usage over the years, all without following up on its promised pledge to consult with the City.

Reflecting a citywide desire to maintain recreational uses of land in the GGNRA, the San Francisco City Charter amendment passed by the voters in 1973 (former section 7.403-1(a)) included a provision that required that the deed transferring City-owned park lands to the National Park Service have the restriction that those lands were to be reserved by the NPS “in perpetuity for recreation or park purposes with a right of reversion upon breach of said restriction.” In other words, if the GGNRA should ever change recreational access to the lands once owned by San Francisco, the City reserved the right to take back the land. The deed that transferred Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, and other City-owned park land to the GGNRA does indeed contain the following clause: “to hold only for so long as said real property is reserved and used for recreation and park purposes.”

Why is the legislation that created the GGNRA so important?

When the GGNRA was created in 1972, National Recreation Areas, along with National Seashores, and National Monuments could be managed to different standards than National Parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone. However, in 1978, the laws governing the National Park Service were rewritten to require that all national park units be governed by the same mission statement, i.e., “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” [16 U.S.C. Section 1] Note that recreational uses are not specifically mentioned in this mission statement.

This change in mandate has been used by opponents of off-leash and other recreational uses to claim that the GGNRA, a highly modified urban recreational area, must be managed in the same way as a pristine wilderness like Yosemite. In particular, they claim that since dogs are not allowed off-leash in Yosemite, they should not be allowed off-leash anywhere in the GGNRA’s urban recreational area.

However, when Congress made the management change in 1978, it was concerned that the unique purposes of each park would be overlooked in the change. Therefore, the following language was added to the change [16 U.S.C. Section 1a-1]: “The authorization of activities shall be construed and the protection, management, and administration of these areas … shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established, except as may have been or shall be directly and specifically provided by Congress.”

Indeed, courts routinely look to the “enabling legislation” (the legislation that created the park) and the “legislative history” (the report issued by Congress at the time of the legislation) when asked to determine the scope of activities permitted in a park.

The GGNRA’s enabling legislation and its legislative history are very clear that its purpose was to “maintain needed recreational open space”. Thus management polices that severely restrict recreational access in the GGNRA violate 16 U.S.C. Section 1a-1, and should not be allowed.

Attempts to Change the Name of the GGNRA

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) has been trying to change its name to the Golden Gate National Parks (GGNP) for years.  The GGNRA’s original mission, outlined in the legislation that created it, was “to provide for the maintenance of needed recreational open space.” Over the years, however, staff changed the mission from a recreation-based to restoration-based one. Increasingly large areas were closed to park visitors at Fort Funston, Ocean Beach, and Crissy Field. GGNRA staff claimed that they had to manage the highly-modified, urban recreation area in an identical way to the way they managed a pristine wilderness area like Yosemite. Under this new mandate, recreational open space had little priority, and attempts to ban off-leash dog walking, along with other recreational activities, began. As long as the GGNRA remained, literally, a “national recreation area,” it was harder to justify the changes in the way the area was administered.

In 1998, Ken Ayers, an attorney representing the SF/SPCA in lawsuits over the closure of large areas at Fort Funston to all recreational users, was told by Major Hugh Irwin, then the head of the GGNRA Park Police, that GGNRA staff were pushing to change the name to GGNP “because that would enable them to impose more restrictions on recreation.”

GGNRA staff began referring to the area as GGNP, even though that was not the official name. For example, the official invitation to a ribbon-cutting at a new lodge at Fort Baker in Marin on June 14, 2008, identified Brian O’Neill as Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Parks. Press releases, the website, and items sold at the visitors centers all referenced the Golden Gate National Parks.

However, the name “GGNRA” was created by Congress when it established the GGNRA. That name has not been changed.

On June 19, 2008, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi introduced H.R. 6305 in the U.S. House of Representatives. According to the bill’s official description, it was intended: “To clarify the authorities for the use of certain National Park Service properties within Golden Gate National Parks and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, and for other purposes.” Indeed, much of the bill covered administrative details, e.g., allowing the Presidio Trust to move their visitor center, allowing a concession contract at the Maritime Historic Park. But Section 2 of the bill was the “other purposes” referenced in the bill’s description.

Section 2 of the bill would change the name of the GGNRA to the GGNP. The complete text:


(a) Name Change-

(1) IN GENERAL- The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is hereby renamed the `Golden Gate National Parks'.

(2) REFERENCES- Any reference in a law, map, regulation, document, paper, or other record of the United States to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is deemed to be a reference to the Golden Gate National Parks.

(3) CONFORMING AMENDMENTS- The Act titled `An Act to establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the State of California, and for other purposes' (Public Law 92-589, approved October 27, 1972) is amended--

(A) in sections 1 and 2 by striking `National Recreation Area' each place it appears and inserting `National Parks'; and

(B) by striking `recreation area' each place it appears and inserting `national parks'.

(b) Change of Unit From Recreation Area to National Park-

(1) IN GENERAL- The Golden Gate National Parks, as so renamed by subsection (a), is hereby designated as a national park and shall be administered as such by the Secretary of the Interior.

(2) CLARIFICATION- This section designates the recreation area known as Golden Gate National Recreation Area as a national park and renames that unit Golden Gate National Parks. Nothing in this section shall be construed as creating a new `national parks' category of designation with the National Park System.


Section 2 went beyond merely changing the name of the GGNRA. It amended the wording of the legislation that created the GGNRA, removing “recreation area” wherever it appeared and replacing it with “national park”. This is important because courts routinely defer to the language in the legislation that created a national park or recreation area to determine what uses are permitted there.

When the GGNRA was created in 1972, national recreation areas, national parks, national seashores, and national monuments could be managed in different ways. Then in 1978, Congress rewrote the laws governing national parks so that all national park units, including national recreation areas, national seashores, and national monuments must be governed in the same way as national parks like Yosemite. As an example of how this has been applied, GGNRA staff have argued that since off-leash dogs are not allowed in the wilderness of Yosemite, they should not be allowed in the highly modified, urban recreation area of the GGNRA.

However, Congress, when it changed the law in 1978, was concerned that the unique purposes of each park unit would be overlooked in the change to uniform management. So they added the following language to the law (16, U.S.C. Section 1a-1):

“The authorization of activities shall be construed and the protection, management, and administration of these areas … shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established, except as may have been or shall be directly and specifically provided by Congress.”

H.R.6305 would have provided the explicit authorization from Congress to overturn the enabling legislation’s emphasis on preserving access to recreational open space. It would have made clear that the GGNRA was to be managed in the same way as Yosemite. Off-leash dog walking and other recreational uses would have been easily banned.

Given the profound implications of Section 2, people were surprised the name change was not mentioned in the official description of the bill, but was relegated to “and other things.”

Dog advocates found out about this proposed law at the very last minute, through a blog by someone interested in issues in the Presidio. His blog was posted shortly before the bill was scheduled to be heard by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources to which it had been assigned. Dog advocates and other recreational users of the GGNRA immediately emailed, phoned and faxed members of Congress asking them to remove Section 2 from the bill.

A coalition of GGNRA recreational users, including off-leash dog advocates, boardsailers, equestrians, surfers, and kayakers met with Congresswoman Pelosi’s staff expressing theirconcerns about Section 2 and asking that it be removed. Recreational users argued that, because Section 2 amended the enabling legislation that created the GGNRA, this was no cosmetic name change. Rather, the name change would provide the basis to undermine and subvert all active recreation in the GGNRA.  Eventually, the entire bill was withdrawn, without ever being considered by the Subcommittee.