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Should Dogs Be Allowed Off Leash in Some National Parks?

Headlands_advencapGolden Gate National Recreation Area, Photo: Flickr/advencap

It's the kind of story that makes conservationists hopeful. After years of staving off development and raising funds, the Peninsula Open Space Trust purchased 4,000 acres south of San Francisco, called Rancho Corral de Tierra, and convinced the Park Service to add it to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. This addition represents a boon for hikers, bird watchers, and naturalists, and it will boost efforts to protect threatened species within the tract. But not everyone is happy about the changes that inclusion in the Park System has brought.

Unlike some areas of the GGNRA nearer to San Francisco that allow dogs to be walked off leash, the National Park Service, of which the GGNRA is a part, decided to include a leash requirement to Rancho Corral de Tierra when it assumed control of the area in December. Previously, there were no such restrictions and many locals and dog walkers used the area and its network of makeshift trails to run their dogs. The new rule recently led to an incident that grabbed national headlines: a National Park Service Ranger tasered a man who was walking his dogs without a leash in Rancho Corral de Tierra.

The incident sparked outrage and claims that the ranger used excessive and unreasonable force to restrict the man, a local who often walked his dogs in the area and allegedly told the ranger he didn't have any identification and then gave the ranger a false name. Eye witnesses say that as the ranger was talking on her radio to try to confirm his identity, the man asked her why he was being detained and then said he was going to leave. She brandished a Taser and he reportedly said he asked her not to use it, as he has a heart condition. But when he continued to walk away, she took him down with the Taser. 

The Park Service is investigating the incident, but it comes amid a larger controversy over dogs in the GGNRA. Last year the Park Service released a draft plan to change its dog management rules for the GGRNA, along with a draft environmental impact statement that describes rule change opitons. These ranged from very restrictive rules, prohibiting dogs from being allowed off lease in areas where they long have been allowed, to more liberal rules that wouldn't be much different than current rules.

The public's reaction to the plan was loud and intense, pitting dog owners and professional dog walkers against birders and naturalists who support increasing restrictions on dogs. In an area like San Francisco, where dogs outnumber kids and where people cherish urban wilderness, access for dogs is a major issue.

The Park Service says it will include Rancho Corral de Tierra in its dog management plan, which means that it may end up including some off-leash areas. But the days of freewheeling dogs in those coastal hills, which afford expansive views of the Bay and is within an hour's drive of more than six million people, are largely over. But then again, so the are the chances that Rancho Corral de Tierra will turn into a golf course.

-- Mary Catherine O'Connor

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