Vexing year for lesbian GGNRA superintendent

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday April 27, 2016
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Of the 410 National Park Service units throughout the U.S., Christine Lehnertz has visited 75 to date. The list includes Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine and Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in Saint Augustine, Florida to North Cascades National Park in Washington State and the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego.

"I haven't got a bucket list because I want to see them all," said Lehnertz, 54, a lesbian and one of the highest-ranking LGBT employees with the National Park Service.

Born in Texas but raised in Colorado, Lehnertz graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder and began her career in the Rocky Mountains. She worked for a variety of conservation agencies, including the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before joining the park service in 2007.

As the deputy superintendent at Yellowstone National Park, Lehnertz's favorite pastime was to go fly-fishing in the Lamar Valley, where wolves were first re-introduced to park.

Now the superintendent of the sprawling Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Lehnertz is still discovering all of the various sites that fall under her purview. She wants to explore more of the GGNRA properties located in San Mateo County, as "they are among the most wild areas we have. Those trails need my hiking boots on them."

Lehnertz and her wife, Shari Dagg, live in Sonoma County with Choco, a "courageous cat" they rescued in Yellowstone. The couple often adopts senior dogs but is currently "between dogs," said Lehnertz, as a Greyhound they adopted late last year "did not work out."

The women are avid hikers and tend to visit parks with "the best hiking," said Lehnertz, when they want to escape to the tranquility of the outdoors.



Since being named the GGNRA's superintendent last May, Lehnertz's life has been far from tranquil of late. Over the last 12 months she has been at the center of a number of public controversies.

The park service caused a firestorm last fall when it floated a plan to start a reservation system for bonfires at Ocean Beach on San Francisco's western edge and begin charging a $35 fee. The proposal was met with vociferous public opposition, and two months ago, it was scrapped.

In January, after resolving months of acrimony over parking congestion and overcrowding at the stand of old growth coastal redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument in Marin, through an agreement that Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) helped broker, the park service found itself again the target of public outcry over a plan to redo a trail into the park that nearby residents contend will only exacerbate congestion at the site.


Roberto Melani, left, and David Wilson brought their dogs, Elmo and Lily, to the "Mighty Mutt March" at Crissy Field to protest the GGNRA's proposed rules for dogs. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland


But the most contentious issue Lehnertz has had to grapple with is rules governing dogs at the various beaches, forests, and other open spaces that are under the jurisdiction of the GGNRA. The issue has been fiercely debated for years, and the park service raised more howls of protest when it released its latest proposal in February on where park users will be able to bring their canine companions, whether on-leash or off.

In early April the group Save Our Recreation filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in federal court against the GGNRA, contending the park service has failed to turn over public documents related to how it came up with the proposed restrictions on dogs.

Last Saturday hundreds of dog owners and their pets descended on Crissy Field, near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, for a "Mighty Mutt March" to oppose the proposed rules. And numerous public officials have also chastised the park service for what they contend is a misguided policy that makes no sense for an urban park like the GGNRA.

"In this case, what has been issued by the National Park Service in terms of the new regulations is antithetical to sound public policy," said Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) in a phone interview this week.

Speier, who held a town hall meeting earlier this year with Lehnertz to discuss the proposed dog rules, is particularly incensed that the policy would result in no off-leash dog areas at any of the GGNRA sites in San Mateo County.

"This is not Yosemite or Yellowstone; this is an urban setting," said Speier. "The rules have to reflect the GGNRA parks being in an urban setting."

Added gay San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who took part in the protest over the weekend, "Those restrictions are going to harm a lot of Bay Area residents and push more dogs into our already overcrowded city parks. ... Hope springs eternal, but I think this is a done deal from what I can tell."

The park service counters it needs to balance the needs of all park users while protecting the flora and fauna found within the various GGNRA sites. Under its preferred plan, dogs on-lease will be allowed in nearly two-dozen park sites, seven of which would be designated as off-leash.

As for Lehnertz, who had previously served for five years as regional director of the park service's Pacific West region, she told the B.A.R. that the controversies come with the job and are a signal of how passionate the public is about the protected spaces overseen by the National Park Service, which turns 100 on August 25.

"I don't take it personally, but I know it is personal for folks who think they are losing an opportunity to enjoy the parks," said Lehnertz when asked about the intense public outcry, in particular, over the proposed dog rules. "For the people who live in neighborhoods next to a GGNRA park site, if things changed there it is a personal loss to them."

However, Lehnertz noted that the park service has also heard from many people who support restricting dog access throughout the GGNRA. And she stressed that the rules will not be finalized until December.

"They think it is locked in, but we are still looking at all six alternatives that have been proposed," said Lehnertz, who refrained from commenting on the lawsuit. "We have a preferred alternative, but it is not final."

Both Wiener and Speier told the B.A.R. that they don't believe Lehnertz is the driving force behind the dog rules, and instead, it is coming from park officials based in Washington, D.C. Nor are they hopeful about seeing the park service adopt more lenient dog access rules later this year.

"The National Park Service is hostile toward dogs. It bugs them GGNRA is treated differently than national parks in other parts of the country," said Wiener. "But GGNRA is in an urban area; it is not Yosemite. It has a long tradition of recreational access, including dog walking."

The park service officials "are tone deaf," said Speier. "The only thing they will listen to is a sledge hammer to their budget in D.C."

But rather than slashing park funds, Speier said she would prefer to see a willingness on the park service to listen to the concerns of dog owners.

"We are not asking for the moon. We are asking for small parcels to be used to exercise dogs," said Speier, suggesting the current off-leash rules at Rancho Corral de Tierra in Montara on the Peninsula south of San Francisco could be kept in place.

While critical of the park service over the dog access policy, the two lawmakers both praised Lehnertz on a personal level.

"She is extremely competent and smart and easy to talk to," said Wiener. "I respect her as a person and a professional. She seems to be doing a good job overall."

Speier noted that during her time in office, "there has been one incident after another" involving the GGNRA, from a park ranger Tasering a dog walker to the dispute over the new park management rules.

Yet, for the most part, she said things have improved under Lehnertz' leadership. And she credited Lehnertz for agreeing to meet with San Mateo residents at the forum, the majority of whom were dog owners.

"I think she is very engaging and a likeable person. She represents the National Park Service well," said Speier. "Yet, again, I think it is important to convey to the powers that be in Washington the critical nature of providing this space. They listen but then they don't seem to want to respond in a manner that is constructive."

Speaking to the B.A.R. in the community garden outside her office at Fort Mason, Lehnertz said one of her goals this year is to bring in homeless outreach teams to work with the numerous homeless individuals who frequent the GGNRA's sites, particularly Ocean Beach.

"We want to help with solutions from the federal government," she said.

Her main focus, said Lehnertz, as superintendent is to protect and care for the more than 80,000 acres of parklands that comprise the GGNRA and provide an array of recreational opportunities to the 15 million annual visitors it receives.

"We want people to pursue their passions and recreational needs," she said. "We just ask people that they abide by the laws and rules we have as they engage in their recreation pursuits."