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Dogged Pursuits

Despite the growing number of households with dogs, dwindling open space and record numbers of people looking to bond with their canine pals on weekends, more and more Bay Area parks are closing their gates to dogs

By Tomas Matza

Photographs by George Sakkestad

In Silicon Valley the call of the wild isn't exactly coming through loud and clear. There's "the call to go to any place that isn't mobbed with cyber-geeks," "the call of the cell phone-less space" and "the call to breathe air that is not visibly brown." On all scores the region offers options. More bumper-to-bumper traffic and unsustainable office-complex projects may be on the horizon, but at least a few forests and beaches remain to show us what was here before the first coming of Steve Jobs, let alone the second. Open space is locked up for perpetuity, dependable and, best of all, for everyone!

Or is it?

The majority of the area's trails are off-limits to hikers with canines, even though thousands--perhaps millions--of the local households have dogs who are cooped up all day and need the exercise. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), which stretches across the three counties of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo, has 219 miles of trails, but only about 50 of them are open to dogs. Bikes, meanwhile, can lay tread over some 160 miles, and horses can drop piles of briquette-sized dung along 36 miles over and above that.

The Santa Clara County Parks Department is perhaps the most dog-friendly among the three MROSD counties, but only by default: dogs are welcome on only 40 percent of its trails and the county is planning to relocate one of its most heavily used dog runs, the Santa Clara Dog Park, and shrink it by a third. Meanwhile, the San Mateo County Parks and Recreation Department, infamous among dog-access advocates, allows no dogs on its 200-plus miles of trails. Santa Cruz allows dogs in some parks, as well as on non-state park beaches without a leash at certain times of the day, but its draconian dog laws downtown cast a shadow over its open-space permissiveness: dogs are prohibited on Pacific Avenue, the pier and on UCSC's campus.

Dog owners have been fighting for decades to change rules that keep them out of public spaces. Despite their efforts, dog access to local parks has not increased significantly and many owners are forced to choose between covering the same few trails over and over again, risking a fine for disobeying the rules, driving miles to friendlier parks or leaving their pets at home to chew the furniture.

The difficulty for park agencies is balancing conservation with recreation. As the region's population continues to grow, the stakes only become higher. Dog owners, meanwhile, are asking why their dogs have been unfairly targeted as despoilers of the environment.

Habitat Restoration With Big Trucks

I'M RUNNING LATE and worry that hundreds of people from Nice Dogs Outside (NDO) are going to leave without me. The group plans to take a stand today at what has become a Bay Area battleground--the Stanford Dish (the foot-hills area between the main campus and Highway 280) to protest the university's ban on dogs. Stanford claims that dogs, especially (but not exclusively) when they are off-leash, threaten species like the red-legged frog and the California tiger salamander.

In announcing the ban last May, then-Stanford President Gerhard Casper wrote, "Increased use of this area by the public for recreational hiking and jogging off paved service roads have [sic] over time despoiled the environment and caused erosion of the hillsides. ... The wildlife habitat has been further degraded by unleashed dogs."

Under the new plan, the Dish has been designated a "Special Area for Habitat Conservation and Continued Academic Use," and hiker/jogger access has been limited to only one paved loop. Dozens of illegal trails have been closed, moonlit walks and picnics are no longer allowed and "unauthorized structures," such as a medieval labyrinth, have been removed. As for dogs: "Even leashed dogs will be prohibited, since enforcement of leash rules is difficult and the mere presence of dogs creates the illusion of predators for wildlife in the area."

Casper's arguments more or less characterize those made against dogs in other places. Aside from the usual griping about odorous droppings on trails and out-of-control dogs, the key concern among wildlife management offices is that dogs threaten the species in the preserve and that the larger mammals--the crowd-pleasers, in other words--will be driven away and therefore rarely seen. In response, dog advocates assert that there have been no studies showing that dogs create the illusion of predators and scare or kill wildlife.

I finally reach the Stanford Avenue entrance to the Dish, at which point my heart sinks. A few stragglers mill around the gate, but there is no protest group in sight. They have left after all. I walk over, only to find out that the few stragglers are the protesters. Several more eventually trickle in and the group tops out at about 30 people. Despite the turnout, two professional photographers have shown up, plus a cameraman from KGO-TV. Together the four of us boost their numbers significantly. The other 970 NDO supporters apparently have other things to do.

Those who are here, though, are serious. They have set up an information table with leaflets listing public meetings people can attend to voice opposition. There is a donation jar, free cookies, a petition, plus a box containing the protest's key props: muzzles on stiff plastic leashes. These will be used to walk the invisible dogs.

Their main complaint is that the Dish loop had become a part of their routine and without it they have to drive a half-hour to either the Windy Hill or Arastradero Preserves. And they feel that Stanford's new policy is callous and shows a lack of concern for the community. Further, they're certain that the conclusions about dogs and wildlife are off base.

Linda Cohen, one of NDO's founders, says that open space areas are important because they provide "places where you can run and walk," unlike the "playpens" provided by fenced-in dog runs. "I find the conservation issue a little bit bogus. I don't think dogs have been that detrimental. In fact there is more forestation on the east side of the Dish [where hiking has been most focused] than on the west side [where cattle have been allowed, by special permission, to graze]," she says.

There is a conspiracy theory afoot that Stanford is using conservation rhetoric as a ploy to get people out of the foothills so that future development plans will go unchallenged. NDO says that if the university was really interested in restoration, it would get rid of the cows, which cause erosion and alter plant communities. The group also says that the land looks more degraded now, after a month of "restoration," than it did before. The most common sight is not of students sowing native plant seeds, but of guards in blue uniforms and commando boots. Plus cars now drive along the newly paved road and the path is lined by a new wooden fence with posts sunk in deep cement every five feet.

Veronica Volny, a Stanford Ph.D. biology student, is shocked by the recent construction's impact. "It's so sad," she says over the sound of her two empty dogs' leashes scraping over the pavement. "They've turned a perfectly nice trail into a swatch of asphalt. I'm not even that interested in coming here anymore, but for those that are, it's absurd to think that a leashed dog would have any effect. They'll just be confined to the pavement." Her fiancé, Aaron Hirsh, also a Ph.D. biology student at Stanford, adds, "A key part of conservation biology is getting people to care about the land and interact with it. And this just alienates people from nature by taking away their main contact with it."

I call the CCB (Stanford Center for Conservation Biology) in search of answers. After being told that there have been no recent impact studies on dogs and "maybe one old one in a filing cabinet somewhere," I'm directed to the Stanford News Service, which subsequently directs me to Larry Horton, who is in charge of Stanford's ongoing negotiation with the city. He does not return my call.

Doo-doo Economics: Increasingly stringent laws and policies are keeping dogs out of public parks and other open spaces, even though there's no scientific evidence to suggest they cause environmental damage.

Weird Science?

GIVEN THAT THE Dish is Stanford's land, the logic behind putting the university's feet to the fire on the matter of impact studies seems a little tenuous. But what about the public agencies that should be accountable to local dog owners?

At the moment, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District manages about 45,000 acres, which includes such beautiful preserves as Sierra Azul, El Sereno, Long Ridge, Rancho San Antonio, Russian Ridge and Purisima Creek. It is looking to expand by annexing the coastal land between Pacifica and Big Basin. All of its preserves are open to hikers, and other users have varying degrees of access.

Though the District provides a great service to the community, MROSD's public affairs manager, Stephanie Jensen, says she has caught lots of heat in her first four months on the job. People have been unhappy with the District's managing policies; a reporter wanted to know why it has yet to open certain trails in Sierra Azul; a group of mountain bikers showed up en masse at the District board meeting to protest a plan that reduces biker access. Dog hikers, meanwhile, wonder why their piece of the open space pie is so much smaller. (Again, they can walk their dogs on about 23 percent of the trails, compared to bikers, who get 73 percent, and equestrians, who get 89 percent.)

Jensen says MROSD has been getting more and more liberal with respect to dog access. Initially, when the preserve system was founded in 1972, dogs were completely banned. But over time the board has opened more trails. Currently, nine preserves allow dogs in at least a few areas, and in addition to the 50 miles of trail, there is also a 16-acre off-leash area in Pulgas Ridge, off Highway 280 in San Carlos.

But, generally, Jensen does not view access as a simple matter of equal trail mileage: "[The numbers] may very well demonstrate that there's less dog access than others. But I don't think that implies that the board should be trying to provide equal numbers of access for all constituent groups." She says that MROSD's board makes decisions not based on pressure from a single user group, but primarily on ecological impacts and then on user conflicts.

"The thing that people need to remember is that this is an open space district. It's not a parks and rec district." She slides her card, embossed with the District's vision, across the table. "If you look at our mission statement, it's to acquire and preserve and restore, and then to provide ecologically sensitive opportunities for recreation." If our conversation were a song, this would be the oft-repeated chorus.

And yet, on the matter of a domesticated dog's impact on wildlife, MROSD hasn't done any formal studies. (In the mid 1980s, two studies were conducted in Long Ridge Preserve to determine the effects on wildlife, but both were inconclusive.) Instead, the board and staff make decisions based on "anecdotal evidence" and assumptions that seem common to all park agencies. The evidence includes an informal study suggesting that one-third of dog walkers let their dogs off-leash. Plus, it's assumed that unleashed dogs chase and even kill wildlife, jump in ponds, cause stream-bank erosion and threaten nests. There are other concerns about the scents that dogs leave, and still others about the well-being of the dogs, which are unprepared for possible mountain lion encounters.

All the same, Jensen cannot point to a single conclusive study on which the District has based its conclusions. One of the reasons, she says, is that such studies are extremely expensive.

In defense of MROSD (and other park agencies, for that matter), much data has been gathered by the rangers who are out in the field every day. Miles Standish is a ranger at Castle Rock State Park, which is not administered by MROSD but by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Standish, who says he has two master's degrees in biology and has been with the parks for over 30 years, says, "[The evidence] is anecdotal, I have to admit. But it comes from a number of years' experience. I have seen dogs kill wildlife. When I worked at Mount Diablo there were ranchers that carried rifles because the neighbor's dogs would pack up and chase and kill livestock."

According to Standish, who is also a dog owner, "Biologically speaking, dogs are in the family Canidae. They give off scents that are recognized by animals in the park as being from predators, and they in some cases act as predators." When asked whether he knows of any studies on this, he says he can only point to "generalized studies" that assess predators in the Canidae family--which includes wolves and coyotes.

Dan Bernstein, who works with a dog lobby group called PADS (Peninsula Access for Dogs), says he's familiar with the ecological evidence that is drawn on and that, in the case of MROSD, the only thing resembling a study is the one Jensen mentions in which a biologist was commissioned to go to Long Ridge. "He tried to assess objectively whether the presence of dogs would have an impact on wildlife and he came back with some inconclusive results. But his notes very much indicated that there certainly didn't seem to be any shortage of wildlife given that there were so many dogs in the neighborhood. ... In the absence of any conclusive evidence that shows that there is some deleterious environmental consequence to having dogs up there, they really have been playing this conservative game for decades now: 'Oh, we must proceed cautiously.' At some point you hide behind those things."

The Benefit Of the Doubt

ARE THERE ANY STUDIES on the impacts of domesticated dogs on wildlife that the managers are using? Wildlife biologists Reginald H. Barrett at UC-Berkeley and William Andelt at Colorado State University know of none. Both do affirm that dogs can pose problems to sensitive habitat, and do not support the blanket opening of national parks to dogs. But in multi-use areas that already allow bikers and equestrians, they say that dogs are certainly no worse for wildlife.

As for dogs' scents creating the illusion of predators, Andelt is suspicious, saying the impact would not be very significant and adding that in Colorado dogs are not nearly as big a predator problem as coyotes. Barrett says, "Dog scent wouldn't be the issue, as far as I'm concerned. I think the issue is this: Let's say you're a jogger and your dog is unleashed and an animal darts across the path. It's going to be very hard to call that dog back. It's their nature to chase."

Enter the East Bay Regional Parks Department (EBRP), which not only allows dogs in nearly every park and on nearly every trail, it also allows unleashed dogs in "undeveloped areas," provided that they are under control. Indeed, the EBRP seems to be the polar opposite of the South Bay and peninsula parks departments, allowing bikes access to just 53 percent and equestrians 62 percent. According to South Bay wisdom, East Bay Park's liberal dog policy would surely lead to hard-to-spot wildlife that run in terror from hikers and a vast network of eroding trails dotted with feces. But EBRP spokesman Ned MacKay says there are no such large-scale problems.

Instead, the Department takes up potential impact issues as they arise. "We have had some environmental concerns with dogs at Redwood Regional Park," says MacKay. "A creek runs through the park that is the habitat for rainbow trout and they need undisturbed areas where they spawn. There's been some concern that dogs pose a threat to this natural process. Currently, dogs can be walked on the Stream Trail and have to be on leash. There's a study being conducted right now to determine the impacts that both dogs and people have on the creek. It's fenced off at the moment."

By and large, however, the East Bay parks system is extremely dog-friendly. The key question, then, is what has EBRP's experience shown after years of allowing unleashed dogs in its parks? On the subject of cooperation from dog owners, MacKay indicates that, aside from the occasional problem, things have worked well. And as for the dogs-as-illusory-predator issue, numerous visitors say that the EBRP's Sunol Regional Park has no shortage of wildlife.

The East Bay's Point Isabel is another case in point, offering dog owners off-leash space in what is essentially a multi-use picnic area. The EBRP's experience here suggests that dog owners are a responsible bunch. "The arrangement at Point Isabel has worked out pretty well. It seems to be pretty well self-policed," says MacKay.

Claudia Kawczynska, editor-in-chief of the renowned dog-culture magazine The Bark, who has spent much of the last decade working for off-leash areas for dogs in the East Bay, confirms this. "Overall, the off-leash areas are cleaner than the areas that allow dogs only on leash because people feel like they're stakeholders in their park and they clean up. In Point Isabel there's an organized cleanup and they give prizes to the person who finds the most dried old poop."

Doggie Begging for Space: This canine, Honey, must now travel to the Arastradero Open Space Preserve since dogs are no longer allowed to walk in the foothills at Stanford Dish, with or without a leash.

Dog-Hating Separatists And Favoritism?

ASIDE FROM WHAT DOGS do or don't do to the plants and animals in the preserve, there's the matter of what happens when they meet another user, the potential of what Jensen calls "user-conflict." Jensen tells of how someone set traps on Marin County trails. Most likely because of anger from overuse, the traps were intended for bikers and had the dangerous potential to send them flying over the bars at high speeds.

Generally, MROSD is trying to accommodate a range of different forms of recreation that do not always mix together, and it makes its access decisions based upon providing a "balance of access to a lot of groups" that is derived from "what the board hears from the public."

Apparently, there are a fair number of users so irritated by dogs that they have taken the time to compose letters to the District. Dog owners are accused of being belligerent, rarely keeping their dogs on a leash and not cleaning up after them. There are also complaints that dogs threaten and disturb wildlife, diminish use for people and wildlife, fight with other dogs, jump on people and detract from the natural quality of the outdoor experience.

"If we lived in a time when people took responsibility for their impact on the environment," one user writes, "I would not be writing this letter. Anyone who has walked on trails accessible to dogs can see and smell what happens to those trails. Please consider severely limiting this kind of access until there is either a responsible organization to clean up the mess or people start doing it themselves."

But are letters of complaint entirely responsible for the current imbalance between trail access? There are undoubtedly complaints about equestrians along the lines of "Mounds of horse shit on trails is unpleasant" or "Big horses scare my children." There are also almost certainly complaints about mountain bikers going too fast or cutting illegal trails. And the District readily admits that there are many letters in support of dogs, too.

Dan Bernstein thinks the District is playing favorites and that the local equestrians are "very influential." He offers as evidence that fact that the District has decided to kick dogs (and bikers) off the Sausal Pond Trail in Windy Hill, while allowing equestrians to continue to use it on a temporary basis. (The decision, according to MROSD, is temporary and will be reconsidered after further study.)

Rod Brown, President of ROMP (Responsible Organized Mountain Peddlers), a user-group coalition of a different stripe, sums up the Sausal Pond decision this way: "During the public comment period, a dog walker requested that this trail be opened to dog walkers as well as equestrians. Certain members of the board noted that permanent use of the trail had yet to be determined, and that dog access would be considered at that time. Director Little made a motion to open the trail to both dog walkers and cyclists as well as equestrians, noting that safety concerns applied to all users. The motion died without a second. The board then voted to open the trail on a temporary basis to equestrians, with all directors voting in favor except for Little. ... Unfortunately, I think this is indicative of how certain members of the MROSD board have yet to overcome their prejudices toward certain user groups, including cyclists and dog walkers, even on an issue pertaining to user safety."

But MROSD's Stephanie Jensen stands firm: "Honestly, I've heard this charge that the District gives favor to somebody who has money a lot of times, and I can't tell you how that has been in the past, but since I've been here, I have not seen it. I have seen somebody say flat-out no to somebody who's got the biggest pockets in the world. ... Frankly, the equestrian community came in gangbusters. They represented themselves in letters, numbers and continual board meetings."

In the South Bay and on the peninsula the result is lots of finger-pointing and not much change in policy either way. Dog owners are convinced that equestrians and mountain bikers are the darlings of the District. Bikers, meanwhile, say the same thing about equestrians. Equestrians complain that the dogs and bikes spook their horses. And some hikers say that horses, bikes and dogs all screw up the trails.

Thinking Regionally

THERE ARE A FEW things on which everyone agrees, the first being that as the region's population increases, so too will the wear-and-tear on the preserve system, regardless of user group. The looming trouble is that one park closing has a subsequent impact on other parks. As more and more users are forced into a handful of open space areas, it's feared that use levels will reach the point where closures will be necessary, and then the process of degradation starts all over again. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but given the rate of growth in the South Bay, not outside the realm of possibility.

Jensen has already received emails about the Dish closing's impact on Windy Hill and she is concerned that MROSD is taking a disproportionate amount of the biker and dog-user load. "This is the door they come banging on because the board members have listened." Then she asks, "Have you gone up to San Mateo County [Parks and Recreation]? There's no place to take your dog there, and I'm wondering why. It's ironic that we're the open space preserve and they're the Parks and Rec."

Could it be that PADS (Peninsula Access for Dogs) has never even tried to get trails in the Parks and Rec., an agency that really owes it to the citizens? In fact Bernstein was involved in an effort to squeeze a trail out of San Mateo County in the early '90s as a member of DOGS (Dog Owners for Green Space). After much work, the group managed to gain access to a half-mile trail next to Highway 280 for a one-year trial period--hardly a coup. And at the end of the year the County revoked permission, saying that the Water District objected to the dogs' presence because the trail ran alongside a watershed.

"It was quite a grunt," says Bernstein. "Truth be told it was an enormous amount of work for a pretty small return. Half a mile of trail is nothing. You walk to the end and then turn around and come back ... At the end of the year no one had the energy to fight for somewhere else."

Since then PADS has focused mostly on MROSD, which, unlike the Parks and Rec., doesn't have to answer to a board of supervisors. MROSD's board members are also elected, not appointed, and thus are more accountable to the public.

Yet Bernstein doesn't empathize with MROSD's predicament of having to absorb the overflow from San Mateo County. "If the MROSD is insinuating that it's not fair that it has to pick up this user load from San Mateo County, East Bay Regional Parks is absorbing a lot of dog usage that [MROSD] should by all rights be handling." He continues, "The last thing the Bay Area needs is people schlepping their dogs around. It's totally idiotic. That's the paradox, especially with the MROSD. They're so eco-conscious. I just shudder to think of the gallons and gallons of gasoline that have been consumed."

Marge Ottenburg is a good case in point. She lives in Saratoga and says she doesn't even bother with the parks that allow dogs because of the leash law. Instead, she drives as far as the Fort Funston and Pigeon Point beaches, as well as across the bay to Point Isabel.

The Bark's Kawczynska is aware of the paucity of dog open space on the peninsula and in the South Bay and does sense that dog owners flood into the East Bay. While she welcomes the visitors, she says, "It's really a shame that we don't think regionally around here."

The Big Picture

These are my worst childhood memories of dogs:

    I'm pinned to the wall by my neighbor's massive sheepdog. His leash is stretched to its maximum length and he is a few inches from my face, barking wildly.

    Riding my bike, I see a small dog out of the corner of my eye. He is bee-lining for me across a lawn and even though I'm pedaling as fast as I can, he is able to catch me and sink his teeth into my leg.

    There is a cloying smell in seventh grade science that has nothing to do with the volcano-baking-soda experiment. I realize that it's emanating from my shoe.

Not-yet-conducted scientific studies may be invoked, but as a practical matter, this whole brouhaha seems to be about three things: fear, leashes and dog doo. Lots of people just don't like dogs, especially those that are loose and tend to stick their noses in personal places. And nobody likes stepping in crap. But most of the dog owners I spoke to do not like keeping their dog on the leash. (Marge Ottenberg likens it to being on a chain gang.) PADS and other organizations continue to clean up trails and educate dog owners about trail etiquette, while saying that their dogs are the equivalent of angels in fur, but the rule-makers and others remain skeptical.

In the meantime, however, the charge that the call to preserve has been used as a smoke screen to obscure a basic underlying dislike of the canine seems to hold water. Says Michael Goldstein, an activist in San Francisco who is fighting to ensure continued off-leash access at Fort Funston, "There's an incredible lack of evidence or science behind these decisions. That's been one of the most frustrating things. We're intelligent people and we also really like nature and animals. ... Under the guise of environmentalism, a lot of things have been shut down."

The consequences go beyond ruffling a few feathers. Closing open space to the people who love it gives restoration biology a bad name, sets the public against well-founded restoration efforts and, generally, turns people against one another. Worse, for those who are afraid to hike alone, the result is a set of severely limited options. Says Nice Dogs Outside's Linda Cohen, "I have always loved to run and hike in the hills. But when the area started getting more populated I found I was going less and less because there were more and more creepy things going on. I decided having a dog would keep me going on the adventures. Unfortunately I soon found that there's no place to go with her."

Doggie Unleashed Furry: Dogs like Kayla, a member of Nice Dogs Outside, now have fewer options for outdoor hiking in the Bay Area.

The Problem of Invisibility

BACK AT THE DISH'S invisible dog walk, the 30 NDO supporters are stretched out in single file, each with a dogless muzzle and leash. People walking the opposite way seem both amused and sympathetic--a good result. But less than a quarter mile from the gate, after gathering for a photo-op with Stanford's Hoover Tower in the background, there are already signs that the hike is over. I was expecting a 90-minute walk, chanting and fist-pumping, and some vigorous talk of revolution. But this is a mellow bunch whose numbers have been cut dramatically by the Niners-Packers game.

I ask Terry Doyle, an older man with long gray hair and an earring, why so few people showed up. "We're sort of getting depressed because Stanford's not listening to us. I realize this is their land, but they should be more interested in offering the community something. This action will really affect the community."

At the top of the hill, most people have turned back, perhaps an indication that this particular fight is lost. I remain with a group of five that stay. Kids approach us and attempt to pet the invisible dogs. In between barking noises that Terry Doyle makes while shaking his leash, he remarks wistfully, "The doctor told me, 'Lose 100 pounds or die.' I lost 70 pounds on these hills with my dog." A mother walks by with her child strapped to her chest and Terry says ominously, "Be careful, they're going to ban babies next."

The mood is dour. Faced with work and family and politics and leisure, how much time can one person give to a cause like dog access? Today's turnout confirms that most people have other things to worry about.

"There's a lot of inertia to overcome," says Dan Bernstein. "If we really wanted access, the way it would happen would be for dog owners to get organized, get on the board at MROSD. But that's a lot of work. I'm not claiming it's intentional, but they can certainly sweat you out. Trying to get change through the front door is an agonizingly slow process. You can measure it in dog lifetimes."

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From the December 7-13, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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