Deva Mathur, of Belmont, California, plays at Ocean Beach with her Labradoodle dog Coco, on December 26, 2016.
Story and Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast
New rules proposed for walking dogs in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) are on hold, after members of Congress requested that the GGNRA extend a waiting period for its Final Environmental Impact Statement.
Three areas on the west side of San Francisco that are affected are Baker Beach, Ocean Beach and Fort Funston, where on-leash dog walking is currently allowed during most, but not all, months of the year; yet the dog walking rules, first established in 1979, have only been sporadically enforced. A lawsuit brought by local residents against the National Park Service (NPS), which controls the GGNRA, eventually led to an overhaul of its rules, which were recently announced amidst much controversy and acrimony, pitting dog lovers against other vested interests.
In a letter by Craig Dalby, a program manager for the NPS, dated Jan. 10, 2017, he explained that delaying the implementation of the new rules will also give them more time for “a review of certain records being released in response to an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request related to the park’s dog management plan and rule.”
Dalby stated that the NPS has already released more than 260,000 pages of documents going back to 1999, and that late last December the NPS learned that a former park employee had used a personal e-mail account for official communications related to the dog management plan’s planning process.
Dalby further stated that the former employee was contacted and is cooperating with a search of his personal e-mail accounts for agency records related to the planning process. This action has already added another 137 pages of e-mails to the official record, which are posted at www.nps.gov/goga/learn/management/dog-management-records.
“The Park Service will conduct an independent inquiry into whether personal e-mail was used in a manner that is not consistent with applicable laws and policies, and if so, whether its use affected the planning and rulemaking processes. The park service will report the results of the internal review to the public. To help ensure an independent and impartial review, the inquiry will be conducted by the National Park Service personnel who are not involved in the dog management planning process,” Dalby stated in the letter.
“Further action under the National Environmental Policy Act and the rulemaking process for the dog management plan will await the findings and conclusions of the independent review,” Dalby said.
The proposed plan would allow dogs to be off-leash north of Stairwell 21 at Ocean Beach, but completely ban dogs south of there because the sand dunes are used for nesting Western Snowy Plovers.
At Baker Beach, dogs would only be allowed on-leash at the beach north of Access Trail Number 2, but prohibited entirely on the beach south of there. They will also be allowed on-leash along the coastal trail, plus the north and south picnic areas.
At Fort Funston, dogs would be banned completely north of the Funston Beach Trail, where the Bank Swallow nests, but would be allowed off-leash on the beach south of the swallows, plus the area surrounding the Chip Trail and northeast of the Funston Trail. They will only be allowed on-leash at the east and west Battery Davis trails, plus the John Muir Trail stairs, Coastal Trail and the parking lot.
The release of the NPS e-mails between park employees and other interested parties has sparked a great deal of public outrage, especially after some of them were posted on an Internet website dubbed “WoofieLeaks” and made available for downloading.
An op-ed piece by local activist Sally Stephens published in the San Francisco Examiner on Jan. 15 claimed the NPS has “a history of not dealing honestly with the public.”
Stephens and others who support off-leash dog walking claim the e-mail records show a biased, unfair decision-making process by the GGNRA staff and destruction of records, along with improper use of e-mails.
National Park Service spokesman Nathan Sargent said he would not comment on, nor verify, the validity of any content in the e-mails, so for now the letter issued by Dalby is the only statement the NPS has made about the issue.
Some e-mails available from WoofieLeaks appear to support the claims of NPS critics.
In an e-mail exchange dated Sept. 11, 2013, for example, at the time stamp of 7:22 p.m. an e-mail tagged from NPS staffer Michael Edwards to staffer Sherwin Smith and former GGNRA Superintendent Frank Dean discusses “concerns about broadening the scope of this interim action, which I can detail by phone.”
The next day an e-mail tagged to former GGNRA Director of Communications Howard Levitt apparently responded to the e-mail by stating, “Everyone: Please delete this and the previous message. These conversations are best done by phone.”
After an article in the SF Chronicle by Tom Stienstra critical of the GGNRA appeared, an e-mail from Jan. 20, 2014 that is tagged to Levitt and park advocate and former Presidio Trust director Amy Meyer shows them discussing the article. It quotes Levitt:
“Saw it first thing – despicable. I’m corresponding with Frank about asking Neal (Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association) or someone else to send a letter to the editor in response to this absurd article.”
Then later that day at 9:48 p.m. there is an e-mail from Levitt to Dean asking if it would be, “Okay to set Neal or Amy in motion? This one merits a response, esp the slam on rangers.”
After an article critical of the GGNRA plan came out in the Marin Independent Journal newspaper, Levitt apparently e-mailed Meyer on Feb. 7, 2014, at 7:49 p.m., and coached her about five “talking points” to bring up, after a supervisor in Marin reportedly urged colleagues to oppose the plan.
On April 22, 2014 at 7:21 p.m. an e-mail from Levitt was sharing the news about a broken finger when he stated, “Ironically, it’s my middle finger .... Probably broke it expressing my opinion of out-of-control off-leash dog visitors.”
Then on May 6, 2014 at 3:20 a.m. an e-mail tagged from Levitt to Dean and Meyer quotes Levitt saying, “Everyone: Here’s my final edit of the I.J. letter to the editor. It incorporates most of Amy’s excellent suggestions, which cast all the points in a positive direction.”
On July 11, 2014, an e-mail tagged to Levitt and David Loeb, the publisher of Bay Nature magazine, has Levitt responding to a joking suggestion by Loeb to teach dogs “western snowy plover avoidance instead of rattlesnake avoidance.” The e-mail allegedly shows Levitt’s response as, “The problem with your suggestion, David, is that the rabid off-leash dog owners are rattlesnakes!”
In December, Congresswoman Jackie Speier called upon the U.S. Department of the Interior’s inspector general to conduct a thorough and public inquiry into the GGNRA staff’s use of e-mails, including the alleged use of personal e-mail accounts to hide deliberate collaborations with special interest groups opposed to off-leash dog walking.
“I am shocked, but unfortunately not surprised, to find out the leadership of the GGNRA conspired to mobilize opposition to counter the voices of citizens with whom they disagreed,” said Speier in a press release. “The e-mails, uncovered through the FOIA process, reveal that the personal e-mail account of a high-ranking NPS, GGNRA employee was used to deliberately hide a preordained decision to orchestrate a campaign to mobilize citizens opposed to off-leash dog areas. Their actions corrupted what should have been a fair and impartial public process….
“I also am calling on the NPS to rescind the dog management plan because of the tainted process,” Speier said.