SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – The National Park Service on Thursday said it is dropping a more than decade-long fight to impose new restrictions on dogs in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area after a lawsuit filed by dog owners uncovered irregularities in the decision-making process.
The park service had released a final environmental impact statement last December on the proposed dog management plan for the 80,000-acre national recreation area, which spans parts of Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties and includes popular dog walking areas such as Ocean Beach, Fort Funston, Crissy Field, Muir Beach and Rancho Corral de Tierra.
The rules, intended to protect environmental resources and wildlife and increase public safety, were expected to be finalized as early as January 2017 after a more than 10-year process.
However, the process was brought to a halt after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by dog owners in April 2016 uncovered problems with the decision-making process.
Documents obtained through the lawsuit showed a biased decision-making process and extensive use of private emails by five park service officials to collude with groups lobbying for the rules, according to Andrea Buffa, a member of the dog owners group Save our Recreation.
Park service officials said an independent review concluded that the use of personal email was inappropriate but did not ultimately influence the outcome of the planning and rulemaking process.
Nevertheless, they concluded that it was inappropriate to move forward.
"We can do better and in the interest of upholding the highest standard of transparency and trust with our Bay Area neighbors, we have determined that it is no longer appropriate to continue with the current dog management rulemaking process at Golden Gate National Recreation Area," National Park Service acting director Michael Reynolds said in a statement.
While the proposed rule changes included 22 locations for dog walking, including six off-leash areas, advocates said they would have cut around 90 percent of the areas where dog owners are currently allowed to walk dogs off leash and drastically reduced on-leash areas as well.
Buffa, who said she walks her two Australian cattle dogs at Fort Funston, said she was thrilled by today's announcement.
"This is a huge victory for the people of the Bay Area," Buffa said. "It's literally been more than a decade that we've been telling the park service that dog walking is part of the way of life in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's a really important form of recreation for us. They were finally forced to listen."
The park service first attempted to enforce new restrictions on on- and off-leash dogs in 2002, but a 2005 court decision forced park service officials to undertake a lengthy rulemaking process and environmental review of the proposed dog management plan.
Elected officials in the Bay Area have been consistently opposed to the proposed dog rules, with the San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin County boards of supervisors all approving resolutions against them at various points.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier has also opposed them, and in September won approval in the House of Representatives for a budget amendment preventing the park service from restricting off-leash dog walking in the GGNRA.
Park service officials said they will continue to enforce existing pet regulations dating back to 1979, with some modifications for parts of Crissy Field and Ocean Beach.
In areas that were not covered by the 1979 policy, current National Park Service policy requiring dogs to be on-leash will apply. That leaves some uncertainty around areas of San Mateo County that have been added to the recreation area since 1979.
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