Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

SF parks dog plan sparks howls


The dog park in McLaren Park includes stunning views across the bay to Mount Diablo. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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A plan to be voted on Thursday that would regulate dog access in natural areas in San Francisco's city parks is sparking howls from dog owners.

Known as the Recreation and Park Department's Natural Resources Management Plan, it covers everything from the forests of Mt. Davidson to the grasslands of Bernal Hill to the coastal scrub of Twin Peaks to the creek in Glen Canyon. It also covers the wetlands of India Basin and Lake Merced, and portions of McLaren Park, Buena Vista Park, and the Oak Woodlands of Golden Gate Park.

There are 32 local park sites designated as natural areas, which encompass 1,100 acres and 30 miles of trails. Many of the sites are popular with dog owners as they provide recreational access within walking distance from their homes.

The purpose of the management plan, under discussion for close to 25 years, is to protect the city's native habitats and species, some found nowhere else in the world, such as the San Francisco garter snake and mission blue butterfly. With that goal in mind, the plan calls for the removal of a total of 19.3 acres of off-leash dog areas from the city's parks. The other 75.9 acres where dogs can play off-leash would remain.

"While there are some impacts for people who like to run their dogs off-leash, it is the broader goals of the plan to preserve the environment and cultivate nature in our city that we hope win out," said Sarah Madland, director of policy and public affairs for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

Dog advocates argue that adopting the city's plan at the same time as the National Park Service intends to remove nearly all the off-leash dog areas in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area will negatively impact the city's parks, as dogs and their owners will crowd into the remaining dog play areas in their local parks. (See related story.)

"When combined with the GGNRA plan, suddenly it is going to be a huge impact on people with dogs in the city," said Sally Stephens, the longtime chair of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group. "What the GGNRA currently has available but will close is greater than all the off-leash areas in San Francisco's parks combined."

The city's planning commission is expected to approve the plan's environmental impact report during a special joint session with the recreation and park commission Thursday afternoon (December 15) at City Hall. Once it does, the rec and park commissioners are expected to adopt the management plan, which would then need to be approved by the Board of Supervisors sometime in early 2017.

The rec and park department's preferred management plan for the natural areas is also facing opposition from those upset with how it would manage the city's forests and cull non-native species and dead trees. Opponents of pesticide use have also raised concerns about how the plan would allow various insecticides and herbicides to be sprayed in the city's parks.


Impact on dogs, people

As for the impact on dogs and their owners, the bulk of the changes would be felt in three of the city's parks, McLaren, Bernal, and Lake Merced. The plan calls for replacing 16 percent of the existing off-leash dog play areas in those parks with on-leash trail access.

"What this plan calls for is changing the size and location of some of the off-leash areas," said Madland, who stressed that dogs on-leash will continue to be allowed in any city park.

At Lake Merced, the existing five-acre dog play area would be removed, and on Bernal Hill the existing dog play area would be reduced by six acres. In McLaren, the dog play area would decrease by 8.3 acres to protect a creek that runs nearby.

To compensate for the changes, four additional off-leash dog-play areas – there are now 31 – would be created around the city, according to the rec and park department. Plans are underway to create off-leash areas at Balboa, Francisco, and Moscone parks.

"This makes no sense because if GGNRA is severely restricting dogs, which will move more dogs and people into city parks, and the city is restricting where dogs can go, it is untenable," said Joel Engardio, a gay man who made off-leash dog access in the parks a major focus of his failed bid for a San Francisco supervisor seat this fall. "How are people living in an urban city going to be able to recreate?"

There are an estimated 150,000 dogs in the city, and that number is only going to increase, said Stephens, meaning the need for places where dogs can play is only going to grow in importance.

"As more and more people come to the city there will be more and more dogs," she said. "The need for off-leash play areas is only going to increase, so where is it going to go?"

SF DOG is pushing for city officials to reject the rec and park department's preferred plan, and instead, adopt the maintenance alternative, which basically would keep things the way they are now in the local parks. Under that option, none of the dog play areas would be removed or decreased in size and protection of natural areas would not be prioritized.

"What is the purpose of an urban park? Is it for plants or for people to have an active life?" asked Stephens. "In a city as dense as San Francisco, the urban parks primarily need to be for people's enjoyment, where they can go for a walk or just sit in the sun. In a remote wilderness like Yosemite natural areas should take precedent."

The San Francisco Parks Alliance, while it has some problems with the plan, is supportive of seeing the EIR be certified and the department's preferred plan be adopted.

"On the whole, they have done a huge job of trying to balance all the different ways people are using the parks and why, whether it be off-leash dog access and bike trails to recreation and stewardship," said Rachel Norton, who has worked for the parks alliance since 2013 and became its interim chief executive officer in July.

Norton added that her group agrees, "It is important for there to be off-leash dog areas in parks because there are a lot of dogs in San Francisco and they need places to play."

But protecting the city's natural habitats is equally important, added Norton, an elected member of the public school board.

"What is really important to be aware of with this plan is it is about habitat restoration," noted Norton. "For the species of animals and plants threatened by climate change and overall urbanization and development in San Francisco, this plan tries to lay out over 20 years how do we manage our natural lands and protect species."

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who was critical of the GGNRA plan to restrict off-leash dog access during his time on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told the Bay Area Reporter he also has issues with the local parks plan for dog access. Yet he overall supports the goal of protecting the natural areas in the city.

"There are some superb aspects but also some challenges with it, including restrictions on dog access," said Wiener. "I do have concern the federal restrictions and city restrictions in combination will lead to some problems."

He demurred when asked what he would change about the city parks plan, saying he wanted to leave it up to the supervisors "to hash it out" when they take up the matter next year.

To read the full plan, and see how it will impact individual park sites, visit


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