There is a vigorous campaign afoot to have Congress redesignate Golden Gate National Recreation Area to Golden Gate National Parks (the plural is not a typo), and not everyone is happy about it. Bay Area dog owners oppose the proposed change, fearing that it would put an end to off-leash dog walking privileges they currently enjoy.
That’s an interesting facet of the redesignation story, but not the only one.
U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D., California) is the redesignation proposal’s strongest champion, and that’s some mighty powerful juju. For starters, Nancy Pelosi has represented California’s 8th Congressional District (four-fifths of the City and County of San Francisco) since 1987. For closers, she’s Speaker of the House, second in line for the presidency (after Vice President Dick Cheney), and one of the most influential politicians on the planet.
Last month, Speaker Pelosi introduced a bill that would change the GGNRA’s name to Golden Gate National Parks. The proposal was scheduled for review by the House's Resource Committee on July 15.
Is there a feeling of inevitably about the redesignation? You betcha. Even the National Park Service seems to have gotten on the bandwagon. Look how visitors to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area home page are greeted:
Welcome to the Golden Gate National Parks!
Golden Gate National Parks chronicle two hundred years of history, from the Native American culture, the Spanish Empire frontier and the Mexican Republic, to maritime history, the California Gold Rush, the evolution of American coastal fortifications, and the growth of urban San Francisco.
OK, so maybe we don’t need to be fretting over whether redesignation is going to happen. It’s going to be sooner or later. That still leaves the question of “so what?”.
Rep. Pelosi and other supporters of the proposed redesignation clearly believe that the redesignation will be an upgrade in status, converting a “mere recreation area” into a real national park. And not just any old national park, either. Golden Gate National Parks will be the 59th National Park and the only one in that elite group with an “s” tacked on the end for good measure. (the administrative unit Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks consists of two separate National Parks.)
For Nancy Pelosi and other Bay Area elected officials, redesignation will be a plum to be delivered to constituents with as much fanfare as possible.
For the people of the Bay Area, it will be an excuse to party and yet more proof that the Bay Area is one of the most livable places in America and the world.
So, what about those worried Bay Area dog walkers? Why are some so peeved that they consider the redesignation an act of betrayal on Speaker Pelosi’s part?
Here’s the deal. The National Park Service generally requires that park visitors who bring dogs with them, where allowed, must keep them on leash. There is some flexibility, though, and that is a very important provision.
Dog owners and professional dog walkers have eagerly welcomed the opportunity to let dogs run off-leash (but under voice command) at various sites in the park. The Bay Area has few remaining places where this is possible, so the GGNRA off-leash privilege is treasured.
Until the redesignation campaign shifted into high gear, dog walkers at GGNRA seemed to have little basis for concern that their off-leash privileges would be yanked. The idea that the Park Service might ban off-leash dog walking at GGNRA was seen as a possibility, but not a likely one. That’s because GGNRA officials have generally employed a dog-friendly approach to park management.
That doesn’t mean that off-leash dog walking has been traditionally or consistently welcomed at the park. Environmentalists have always complained that off-leash dogs at GGNRA trample or uproot plants, and many visitors have voiced concern that aggressive dogs may attack people, other dogs, smaller animals, and birds.
From a legal perspective, the roots of the present controversy were planted nearly three decades ago. In 1979, the GGNRA Citizens Advisory Committee approved a policy that allowed off-leash dog walking as long as owners maintained "voice control" over their animals.
For details, see the 1997 GGNRA Advisory Commission Pet Policy.
In 2000, GGNRA officials stunned dog owners by announcing that dogs must henceforth be leashed while on GGNRA property. This new policy was a response to a mounting chorus of complaints about the negative environmental and social consequences of off-leash dog walking in the park. Stung by criticism that allowing off-leash dog walking in the park failed to adequately protect park resources and visitors, GGNRA officials felt legally and ethically compelled to adopt a conservative (but not prohibitive) policy toward dog walking.
Officials at GGNRA began preparing a dog management EIS in the early 2000s. This wasn’t to be a vehicle for booting dogs out of the park, nor an excuse to ban off-leash dog walking entirely. Instead, GGNRA officials wanted to provide clear, enforceable guidelines specifying the manner and extent of on-leash and off-leash dog walking in appropriate areas.
The goal of the process was produce rules that would permit dog walking where appropriate while protecting park resources, reducing visitor use conflicts, and increasing the safety of the park staff and visitors. Some areas of GGNRA would be liberally available for dog walking, while some other areas would be permanently or seasonally closed.
In 2003, things got a lot more complicated when the National Park Service formally adopted a “negotiated rulemaking” approach to dog management in the National Park System, even while maintaining that dogs, where allowed, should generally be required to be leashed while in national parks. This new, more flexible policy was deemed reasonable, since it provided all shareholders an opportunity to participate in the policy- and decision making process instead of having the National Park Service issue what many dog owners would consider unreasonable edicts.
More to the point of this discourse, the adoption of “negotiated rulemaking” for dog walking opened the door to regulations permitting off-leash (voice control) dog walking in some areas of certain parks, including GGNRA.
In 2005, dog owners in the Bay Area were elated when a court ruling stipulated that the 1979 GGNRA rule allowing unleashed dogs had to be considered the park’s legal policy. (In rendering this decision, the court pointed out that the Park Service had erred in 2000 by failing to seek public comment before banning off-leash dog walking in the park.) As a result of the 2005 ruling, the Park Service would have to allow GGNRA visitors to walk dogs off-leash in certain areas of the park as long as the dogs remain under voice command. Additional information about season closings and other exceptions to the 1979 policy are available at this site.
Dog walking-wise, that’s where things have stood at GGNRA since 2005.
Enter the proposed redesignation. Now Bay Area dog walkers fear that the impending “upgrade” in GGNRA’s status will change the way park officials manage the park’s resources. Specifically, they fear that resource protection will be taken much more seriously when GGNRA becomes a “real” national park, and that this can only work to the detriment of controversial, potentially harmful recreational activities such as off-leash dog walking.
Is it reasonable to assume that the redesignation of GGNR will be followed by the curtailment or banning of off-leash dog walking, and perhaps some other presently allowed recreational activities?
Technically, it should not make a difference. After all, Congress has made it very clear that all national parks, regardless of their designation, are to enjoy the same level of resource protection.
As a practical matter, however, units designated Recreation Area have been managed to a different, less stringent standard. Because newer national recreation areas like GGNRA and Gateway National Recreation Area (both established in 1972) are urban oriented, and have functions that in many ways match those of state parks or municipal/regional parks, units designated Recreation Area typically make much more liberal provision for mass recreation activities (such as beach swimming, power boating, and team sports) and are generally more tolerant of controversial recreation activities that are potentially harmful or disruptive.
PWC use is a prime example of a recreational activity deemed inappropriate for most “real” national parks, but OK for at least some portions of certain Recreation Areas (such as Lake Mead National Recreation Area).
To hear Bay Area dog owners tell it, off-leash dog walking is another controversial recreational activity that might very well be seen as inappropriate for a "real" national park like the one GGNRA seems destined to become.
Stay tuned, folks. It will be very interesting to see how this one plays out. Assuming that redesignation does occur, it's certain that the managers of this park will be pressured to reexamine resource management policies and practices considerably more controversial than off-leash dog walking.