SAN FRANCISCO - A new federal proposal to tighten leash rules on parkland in and around San Francisco has many dog owners barking mad.
The 2,400-page plan released earlier this month by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the country's largest urban national park, would mandate leashes in open spaces where dogs currently roam untethered. Some popular dog-walking areas would be closed to canines entirely, partly to protect wildlife and native plants.
The proposed rules cover about 14,000 acres of the 75,000-acre GGNRA, which includes portions of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties and is the only national park in the country to allow dogs off-leash.
Since it was published Jan. 14, the document has triggered a flurry of blogging, newspaper columns and calls to action among the dog-owner community. Many expressed concern that recreation officials are trying to push dogs out of the 39-year-old park entirely.
"I have a feeling they don't want us in there at all," said Suzanne Valente, who takes her dog to Ocean Beach, one of the few remaining off-leash areas. Under the proposal, one section of Ocean Beach would still allow unleashed dogs, but another would become a dog-free zone.
Dogs also would be banned from parts of Crissy Field and Fort Funston and all of Marin County's Muir Beach -- sites that have traditionally been favored destinations for dog owners.
Park management officials strenuously deny any sinister motive behind the proposal.
"This is not a plan to ban dogs in the GGNRA," said park spokesman Howard Levitt. "Once enacted, this is a 20-year plan to try to balance the needs of a huge variety of users while also protecting natural resources."
The park receives an estimated 16 million visitors each year and has never had formal guidelines for managing dogs, Levitt said. Most of the current rules stem from a parkwide pet policy developed in 1979 -- a set of recommendations that was never brought in line with federal regulations governing dog-walking in national parks.
"If you ask 100 people in this park, not one of them could tell you what the rules are on dogs," Levitt said.
The plan has received a warm welcome from nature lovers who have long complained that frolicking dogs pose a threat to the 36 rare and endangered plants and animal species that inhabit the park.
One such animal is the Western snowy plover, a rare shorebird that is considered threatened and protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2006, the GGNRA enforced an emergency rule to protect the birds, which currently number less than 100. It requires dogs to be kept on leash at Ocean Beach and Crissy Field for 10 months every year from July through May.
Beyond frightening and sometimes killing wildlife, dogs affect how humans experience the park, said Mike Lynes, the conservation director for Golden Gate Audubon Society. The Berkeley nonprofit has been one of the most vocal advocates for environmental preservation in the park.
Lynes said many people, including his wife, feel uncomfortable around dogs and avoid areas of the park with a large canine presence.
But dog owners say environmental preservation and responsible dog-walking are not mutually exclusive.
"We can all get along and find ways to coexist," said Sally Stephens, chair of San Francisco Dog Owners Group, a nonprofit with about 900 paying members.