Marin County DOG official comment to the GGNRA:


May 24, 2016

Superintendent Christine Lehnertz
Golden Gate National Parks
Building 201, Fort Mason
San Francisco,CA 94123-0022

RE: In reference to docket NPS-2016-0002, Special Regulation for Dog Management

Dear Superintendent Lehnertz;

Marin County Dog Owner’s Group (Marin County DOG) is much dismayed by the issuance of the Draft Rule for Dog Management for the GGNRA. After years of good faith participation, filing of public comments, working closely with our elected officials and park staff to try and craft a reasonable updated dog management plan, the draft rule dashed illusions that any of that has mattered.

The fact that the plan seems basically unchanged from the first set of preferred alternatives, the fact that the plan eliminates so much access for people with pets, the fact that there are no site-specific studies showing alleged impacts caused by dogs and the fact that the plan doesn’t include a single conservation tool besides removal of people with dogs, all indicate to Marin County DOG that the outcome has been predetermined all along—to remove people with dogs from the majority of the GGNRA in Marin County.

Any changes from the SEIS that are present in the draft rule seem to only represent a further tightening, and a more draconian set of restrictions than previously seen or considered. The draft rule, if adopted, will represent the single biggest loss of public access to the GGNRA since its formation in 1972. In the densely populated Bay Area, access to our shared open spaces for people with pets has been a critical recreational use that’s been historically beautifully served by the GGNRA. With its unique place in Bay Area life, the GGNRA weaves in and out of communities, and the fire roads, trails and beaches have played an important role in the day-to-day lives of the people of the Bay Area—keeping  people healthy and happy as was intended by the establishment of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Marin County communities are intimately intertwined with popular portions of the GGNRA, from Muir Beach, to Tam Valley, to Homestead Valley, to Sausalito to Stinson Beach. The loss of so much access is going to have a devastating impact on the urban quality of life for people who live here, and on the health and wellbeing of residents and visitors and their canine companions.

The GGNRA was a vision, in part, born out of a movement for social equity. The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation was established to address the unique outdoor recreational needs of urban dwellers—separate from the pure conservation ethos driving the protection of wilderness national parks. The legislative history for the GGNRA shows this to be true. The idea was that the GGNRA would provide outdoor recreational opportunities for people and families living in crowded URBAN conditions—people who didn’t have big ranches, yards, vacation homes and beach houses of their own. Dog walking was a legitimate and stated form of outdoor recreation from the very earliest stages of planning the GGNRA. Taking away that access now will be a serious blow for people in the highly urbanized Bay Area, at a time when the need for that space has never been greater. For some, it will virtually eliminate the option to enjoy the simple pleasure of having a family dog. For most, it will mean the end of free, safe and reasonably close access to the open spaces they’ve enjoyed for decades. And for some dogs stuck in shelters awaiting adoption, it could literally mean the difference between life and death.

The draft rule doesn’t seem to be a “management” strategy at all. A real management strategy would use data and site-specific studies to identify site-specific problems, propose solutions for those site-specific problems, manage the existing and expanding need for recreational access for people with pets, and provide enhanced resources and guidance to support one of the most popular recreational activities in the GGNRA.  In short, a true management strategy would attempt to preserve and protect one of the most popular, important, reasonable and healthy uses of the GGNRA. By not seriously considering and implementing any other tools besides removal of people with dogs, the NPS has really revealed that removal is the ultimate goal.

That’s not management. That’s failure to manage. And the NPS should be embarrassed and ashamed for what they are proposing and the damage it will cause.

The loss of so much off-leash access is going to be devastating for the many people who responsibly access their neighborhood trails. On trails such as Oakwood Valley, on any given morning, one can see mothers walking with toddlers hand in hand, bicycle riders and dogs, all harmoniously enjoying nature together. This convenient loop trail is popular with seniors because of its flat terrain where they can safely exercise their dogs without fear of being pulled down while holding a leash. With the loss of the Oakwood Valley loop, people using the area will be left with just the single route “up and back” on the one fire road, concentrating all users in both directions in to a shorter, less desirable walk rather than dispersing them along a true, satisfying loop route. The draft rule not only eradicates this extremely popular off-leash opportunity, but decimates the sense of community this particular trail provides the adjacent community.

The loss of Muir Beach for off-leash play is a real heartbreaker. Muir Beach has always been dog friendly, no matter the agency in charge of its management. It is so important to the fabric of not only the community in Muir Beach, but for Marin in general. And many visitors come from other parts of the Bay Area to enjoy the dog-friendly status. Expecting a community with close to 200 homes (and more dogs than children!) already crushed by visitation traffic for Muir Woods to get in to cars on weekends to head to Rodeo is just insane! The Muir Beach Community Services District is on record, twice, as opposing the dramatic shift in management of the beach, along with the Marin County Board of Supervisors and the Muir Beach Advocacy group. With the restoration of the lagoon, the beach has never been in better condition. The park service makes claims of successful restoration of the red-legged frog habitat, and they claim that the frog’s numbers are way up. With rain returning this past winter, things got a little more hopeful for the Coho salmon—that were most impacted by years of drought and years of obstructed flow of Redwood Creek. With proper function restored to the wetland and the fenced off dunes, Muir Beach is a success story rather than evidence that there are big problems caused by dogs. The real concern should be that there are never any rangers or park staff on-hand to make sure people are staying out of the wetland, off of sensitive dunes and out of restoration areas. Muir Beach would benefit by better stewardship from all users, and better support from the park service and its high profile and deep-pocketed partners. Better enforcement of existing regulations, better signage and instruction for keeping out of sensitive areas, along with poop bag dispensers and trash cans at the far end of the bridge would go a long way to helping all visitors do better. For peak visitation times during the summer and for addressing assertions of “conflict”, the NPS should have suggested temporal buffers to allow people with pets to continue to use the beach at off peak hours during busy times of the year.

The removal of dogs, even on leash, from so many fire roads in the Marin Headlands is unacceptable. These are vital corridors that connect communities and provide real opportunities for long distance hiking and running. The Coastal and Miwok fire roads are one example. These are fire roads that the NPS trucks will continue to use, as will mountain bikers and equestrians (until they are targeted next). There is no legitimate reason to prohibit leashed dog walking from the few fire roads that have historically allowed for it. Not wanting to enforce leash laws is not a legitimate reason to remove people with dogs from fire roads they’ve used for decades to no detriment of resources or the public. Again, there is the failure to manage. There are plenty of trails and fire roads that have never allowed dogs, on leash or off. And no one is asking for new access to those routes. We are asking to protect and better manage the ones that do allow for leashed access to help those few sites continue to truly serve the varying needs of visitors. The Coastal Trail/fire road through Tennessee Valley is a great case in point. It allows access for people with leashed dogs to cross the Tennessee Valley trail en route to either Rodeo or Muir Beach, but has always prohibited access to other parts of Tennessee Valley or the beach. Better signage to keep people with dogs from deviating off the dog-friendly route in to other parts of Tennessee Valley is needed. But to remove existing access, to destroy neighborhood loops or to eliminate long distance hikes like Muir Beach to Rodeo seems unnecessarily heavy handed and punitive.

Additionally, many women feel safer and more secure hiking or running with a dog in the Marin Headlands. For countless women, the proposed rule is not only a “Keep Out” sign for their dogs…it’s a “Keep Out” sign for women, who are being told they will no longer be welcome to use the GGNRA on their own. There is no good reason for this prohibition on allowing safe, leashed access to fire roads and trails that have been dog friendly for decades. Additionally, communities like Muir Beach will be virtually isolated with no safe pet-friendly access to or from their homes. This is NOT what balance or successful management looks like.

Contrary to current assertions that it was an “interim” rule, the 1979 Pet Policy was a well-thought out and well-considered document that was prepared as part of the 1980 General Management Plan. There was nothing “interim” about it, and it has regulated where and how people with pets can access the GGNRA for almost 40 years. It was an official document, drafted on Dept. of the Interior letterhead and prepared by the congressionally authorized Citizens Advisory Committee. The only thing it wasn’t was a “section seven special regulation” though it apparently needed to be to protect it from the changing whims of any individual actor. Regardless, it took in to account the Congressional mandate of the GGNRA to “provide for the maintenance of much needed recreational open space…necessary for urban design and planning”. It selected a few sights, strategically scattered throughout the 80,000 acres of the GGNRA to be available to people with dogs close to neighborhoods and communities. The fact that those rules haven’t been adequately enforced has harmed everyone. But to have the plan not include better enforcement of those existing clear rules, accuse them of failing and then spend millions of precious public dollars to craft an even stricter set of restrictions seems counter-intuitive. Budgeting $2.6 million to enforce a new set of rules that are so sweeping that to enforce them, the GGNRA will be turned in to a hostile environment is irresponsible both fiscally and socially.

Marin County DOG is disappointed that the formation of the draft rule seems to have failed to consider any real, meaningful “buy in” for the public as part of the plan. The plan makes assertions about enormous impacts caused by dogs in the GGNRA, but doesn’t provide a single site-specific study that actually supports those assertions. And then the plan doesn’t present any way for the public to even address the alleged impacts. There is nothing in the plan that gives the public incentive, motivation, resources or education to address issues that arise from a multitude of recreational uses of the GGNRA and the need to balance that with resource and wildlife protection. Missing from these ill-conceived rules are actual tried and true conservation tools such as the following: Seasonal only closures for Coho, and Northern Spotted Owls; Spatial buffers for Mission Blue Butterfly habitat and California Red-Legged Frog; Temporal buffers for peak busy times on Muir Beach; Educational signs and/or volunteers to explain buffers and closures to enhance public understanding, elicit cooperation, and ecological understanding of natural resources; Clear signage marked on trails, maps and NPS website that informs the public of off-leash activity but also recommends nearby trails that are closed to dogs; And most importantly, more garbage cans. The simple act of providing a place to discard your trash encourages better stewardship.  A visible garbage can within the vicinity of a well-used path encourages everyone to pick up trash, even trash left by someone else. But unfortunately none of these management strategies were considered or presented.

The scope of draft rules is too broad and extreme and goes way beyond simply managing where dogs can and cannot go on public lands. The GGNRA seems to want to become the ultimate animal control agency, formulating protocols with little to no experience of such enforcement that normally requires deep knowledge of dog behavior. For example, the proposed rules, rolled out for the very first time in this public process, states unidentified “authorized persons” can stop dog walkers and demand proof of license and rabies. Under this plan, these “authorized persons” will also be allowed to require dog owners to demonstrate on-the-spot voice control with their pet but are vague in their description of what constitutes immediate voice control. The definition is unclear and leaves too much discretion to these so-called “authorized persons” to cite a dog owner with a violation.

Marin County DOG also worries that these overly restrictive rules will begin to chip away at the county’s high adoption rate at the Marin Humane Society, as well as numerous dog-fostering agencies and rescue organizations. With very little open space available for dogs currently, further restrictions could very well discourage families from adopting or fostering animals if they are faced with nowhere to exercise them. This will be a devastating unintended consequence, and could mean life or death for an animal awaiting adoption.

The draft rule really foments, encourages and legitimizes intolerance by this reliance on removal as a way to minimize alleged “conflict” and alleged “impacts”—both of which are, again, unsupported by the data. While all can acknowledge that not everyone wants to recreate around dogs, dog hating is not a legitimate justification for sweeping removal of access across the GGNRA. That’s why the Pet Policy only selected a tiny fraction of the GGNRA for use by people with dogs, and kept the vast majority of the GGNRA dog free. The vast majority of the GGNRA is already dog free for those who prefer it. The specific goal of the Pet Policy was to provide true balance for legitimate needs. The draft rule alleges balance, but provides punitive removal, especially in Marin. One of the most important lessons and “educational opportunities” provided by the GGNRA regarding our shared public spaces should be about tolerance—tolerance for public spaces being filled with all kinds of legitimate public activities; from fishing, to bonfires, to surfing, to organized running/walking events, to equestrian use, to marches and demonstrations, to volleyball games, to weddings and parties with big groups of people- it is all part of the fabric of shared public life in the Bay Area. Legislating removal of activities because some don’t like them is a slippery slope, and it’s bad policy making.

Some specific details of the Draft Rule for Dog Management that concern Marin County DOG:

• Maps are confusing and obfuscate the real impacts of the plan. The maps are at a different scale than presented in either the DEIS or SEIS, making comparisons difficult if not impossible. The maps also don’t cover the entire GGNRA, and cut off in unexplained places, leaving portions of trails and connectors unmapped. In Marin, vast portions of the Headlands that currently allow for dogs on leash aren’t mapped—thereby giving the illusion that those areas won’t change in their access, when in actuality areas that don’t have maps won’t allow any dogs even on leash. This is really unclear and needs to be addressed.

• Without warning, the draft rule changes the names of fire roads so that fire roads are re-named as “trails”. This adds to the confusion of comparing what we have now with what the park service wants us to have after the rule is finalized. It’s another example of bad-faith tactics and obfuscation. These are still wide fire roads with trucks driving up and down them.

• “Monitoring based management” provision is unacceptable. The plan is a set up for failure with its sweeping, broad provisions. The rules we have now aren’t even enforced. If the NPS doesn’t get the compliance it wants (unclear how this is even measured or determined accurately), the Superintendent can just change the rules without any public process. This “poison pill” is unacceptable and gives the Superintendent far too much authority, with little or no accountability or transparency.

• There are substantial things added to the plan that make it even stricter, and Marin County DOG agrees with the Marin Humane Society in their critique of new restrictions placed on individuals walking more than 3 dogs. Individuals should not be considered as “commercial” or “professional” dog walkers, and should be considered separately. This new, arbitrary provision about 3 dogs deserves a thorough airing, as most people aren’t even aware of this change.

• The draft rule fails to consider or consult with other land managers or communities about the very real impacts of displacement. City parks, the County of Marin and the Marin Municipal Watershed District will all feel the effects of displacement when substantial portions of the GGNRA are closed to people with dogs. These already strapped agencies aren’t prepared for huge increases in visitation, and the GGNRA’s plan sets them up for real challenges without any consideration whatsoever. The fact that they were never consulted or included—and their officially stated protests and resolutions ignored—is very troubling. There is a reason that so many gateway communities have gone on record opposing the plan.

• Directing people to just go to dog parks is a non-starter! They are few, and already crowded. Additionally and most importantly, in a dog park, only the dog gets exercise. The GGNRA has provided incredible outdoor recreational opportunities for decades and gotten people outside and moving. This terrible plan shuts that down and destroys that. It will have huge impacts on the quality of urban life in Marin, and on the health and wellbeing of Marin residents. The positive influence of dog ownership on people’s health is well established, and this rule will negatively impact that in a big way.

• Rodeo Beach is a terrible option for the only remaining off-leash area in all of Marin. That beach is a long drive for anyone wanting to go there. There are already traffic alerts in place for Rodeo Beach on the GGNRA website, urging people to go elsewhere on sunny, busy days. The 5-minute red light at the tunnel won’t help matters. And most importantly, the beach is far too dangerous and the currents too treacherous to allow children or pets to safely use the beach for playing fetch or romping at the water’s edge. A surfer died there a few months ago, and his body couldn’t be recovered for 2 days because of dangerous conditions. This is where the NPS wants to send families with their dogs to play??

• The draft rule will add to already terrible traffic in Marin, as people get into cars to search for places to recreate with their pets. With the destruction of so many neighborhood access points and loops, once nearby access will be lost. This is bad for traffic, and bad for a changing climate. If the GGNRA’s goal is to be carbon neutral, this is a terrible step!

• Dog access is going to be consolidated in smaller spaces, adding to conflicts. To alleviate alleged conflict, having legitimate use spread out over wider areas is more desirable. We think if removal weren’t the goal, that we’d see a more nuanced, thoughtful, reality-based approach to designating trails and fire roads as accessible for people with pets.

• Proposed rules negatively affect commercial dog walking and intentionally seek to regulate this class of user out of the GGNRA.

-Commercial dog walkers have walked dogs in the GGNRA for more than two decades. They have provided a valuable and needed service as demonstrated by their growing numbers. At least 40 percent of Marin residents have one or more dogs. Many of those people who work or are physically unable to walk their dogs, employ a commercial dog walker to exercise and socialize their dogs in their place. Most Marin dog owners genuinely care for the well being of their dogs, which they consider family members and companions.

-The latest proposed NPS Dog Management Plan for commercial dog walkers in Marin County is draconian. This is the first time that the NPS has published its ultimate plan for commercial dog walking. The plan has completely failed to consider the impact of its harsh regulations on dog owners in Marin County, and on the individuals delivering this important service.

-Commercial dog walkers are being banned from most locations, which are currently accessible to them under the Interim GGNRA permit program introduced in 2014.  The latest proposed dog management plan for Marin allows commercial dog walkers in only 4 locations out of 19! Sight and voice control dog walking (off-leash) will be permitted in only 1 location, Rodeo Beach-north, the same location for everyone in Marin.

-As stated above, we question the NPS wisdom of choosing this particular beach known for its treacherous currents and rogue waves as the location of choice for off-leash dog walking. Sight and voice control of multiple dogs is challenging in a location crowded with dogs, therefore drowning is an accident waiting to happen for a dog and its handler trying to save it. 

-On-leash dog walking will be allowed in only 3 locations, one of which is a short access route to Rodeo Beach making it of little significance. The Alta trail, an area which has always allowed off-leash dog walking and attracted commercial dog walkers over the years, will become a shorter, leash-only, walking location allowing up to 6 dogs per dog walker.  It is stated in the map that the Donahue entrance is subject to pending official survey of GGNRA easement. Could this mean that the Alta trail may ultimately not be accessible? Why is this survey still not completed?

-The perceived benefits of dog walking restrictions, which the NPS is seeking to accomplish, such as increased health and safety and reduced conflicts between diverse user groups, will not be achieved. It will be offset by greater friction and fights among dogs resulting from leash aggression and other bad behaviors caused by congestion and leash-only dog walking in all the leash-only areas. The right solution to minimizing conflict is to disperse users with dogs over many locations and allowing well-behaved dogs to walk under voice and sight control. This dangerous dog plan will result in more conflicts than it will address. It makes us wonder if any certified canine behaviorist was consulted to sanction this ill-conceived plan.

-We acknowledge that there are some dog owners and commercial dog walkers who do not behave responsibly. Those people should be held accountable for violating the rules.  The NPS has not enforced the rules in the past, which has allowed the problems to persist. Those of us that have acted in responsible ways should not be punished for the misdeeds of a few. The responsible professional dog walking community would welcome stepped up enforcement of existing rules, and would help in any way that we could to increase compliance.

-Signs making it clear where dogs are allowed and not allowed seem to only exist in locations where dogs and their owners are banned. We believe that if there were signs indicating for example, “off-leash dogs are allowed in this location” there may be fewer conflicts between dog walkers and people uncomfortable with dogs. With more signage, visitors who dislike dogs can recreate in locations where dogs are not allowed. Just as dog walkers are banned in certain locations, people who dislike dogs should not be given a priority by NPS, so that they can be “comfortable” everywhere at the expense of people with dogs.

-Regarding commercial dog walkers and the newly introduced weekend ban, we believe that not all GGNRA locations are popular with visitors from outside the immediate area. Some locations, such as Alta and Homestead trails, should be kept open to those caring for dogs on the weekend.

-The proposed commercial permit program, whatever its cost, is unappealing. The small number of accessible locations and walking terms are so disagreeable that they will force commercial dog walkers who provide needed services for Marin residents to find other places to walk client dogs. This migration away from GGNRA will overwhelm county and open spaces and city parks. It will also result in unnecessary driving, increased traffic and parking issues in the nearby communities.  The additional cost and time expended by commercial dog walkers will result in higher prices for the services or will force them out of business. This NPS dog management plan is set up to fail the residents, dog walkers, and dogs of Marin County.

Marin County DOG opposes the draft rule. We urge the NPS to try harder, to do better and to protect the original values of the GGNRA and its unique, Congressionally established mission—serving the population of one of the most densely populated urban areas of the country, with a legislative mandate for preserving and maintaining outdoor recreation as a distinguishing feature of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. For the countless thousands who enjoy recreating with their dogs in the GGNRA, the draft rule represents a real and unnecessary betrayal of American’s Best Idea. How ironic that the Centennial might be remembered more for this betrayal of what the GGNRA has historically represented for the people of the Bay Area and what Congress intended in 1972. What a sad footnote to what should be a celebration of the first hundred years of the National Park Service. The GGNRA was a cutting-edge vision—a unique and totally different kind of park unit. And the people of the Bay Area and the people who visit the area have all benefitted from what having that bounty so close at hand means.

Very telling is the fact that with the adoption of the General Management Plan, the GGNRA has removed “recreation” as a guiding principle. By removing recreation as a guiding principle, and by changing the park’s purpose from providing much needed recreational open space to now be “providing a national park experience,” and by trying to advance the single biggest reduction in access since the inception of the GGNRA, the NPS has really gone too far in its attempts to re-brand and reposition the GGNRA as a traditional National Park. Congress did not designate it as such. No one can just change that outside of Congress, nor force the GGNRA to fall in line with a National Park designation that it doesn’t have, thereby losing its distinguishing flavor and destroying its congressionally established purpose. We urge the NPS to present a new draft rule for dog management that honors the legacy, role and purpose of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Sincerely,

Marin County Dog Owner’s Group
Marincountydog.org
Mill Valley, California