‘WoofieLeaks’ is the latest salvo in an intense fight over dogs on public land

A park visitor bikes on Mori Point, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Kirke Wrench – NPS.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area boasts 80,000 acres of beaches, rugged trails and towering redwoods in the San Francisco Bay area. Each year, 15 million people visit it to go kite-boarding, surfing, hiking, horseback-riding and dog-walking.

But only one of those activities has sparked a battle between some park-goers and federal officials. It’s the one that involves dogs – and it recently reached new, Julian Assange-inspired levels of intensity.

Dog owners have been fighting the National Park Service for years over a proposal to restrict dog-walking within the recreation area. Recently, one of the groups opposed to the new rules upped the ante, filing Freedom of Information Act requests for Park Service emails about the plan and posting them this month on a website.

Naturally, they called the site “WoofieLeaks.”

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According to Save Our Recreation, the pro-dog group that created WoofieLeaks, the FOIA-ed communications show Park Service bias against dog enthusiasts. They also include evidence that personal email accounts were used for official business. And they definitely show the use of some less-than-professional language in internal communications. But all in all, the revelations are pretty far from the sort that got “House of Cards” character Zoe Barnes pushed in front of a train.

Still, the “leaks” – which weren’t really leaks but formally released documents – appear to have made an impact. Officials with the recreation area announced this month that implementation of the new dog-walking rules would be delayed indefinitely. The Park Service also is planning an investigation.

“We are in the process of identifying a team to review whether the use of personal email may have affected the planning and rulemaking process for the GGNRA Dog Management Plan,” said Park Service spokesman Thomas Crosson.

Today, 7.2 miles of the recreation area’s 8.8 miles of beaches are open to dogs; the new plan would reduce that number to 2.8 miles. Dogs would be permitted on 47 of the area’s 137 miles of hiking trails, a step down from the current range of 63 miles. The proposal also shrinks the amount of space where dogs can roam off leash, according to the news site SF Gate.

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Controversy over emails and bias aside, the park does have some legitimate concerns about dogs. It is home to some 3,900 plant and animal species, 37 of which are threatened or endangered. Some of these may be negatively affected by free-ranging Fidos, such as mission blue butterflies, red-legged frogs, snowy plovers and San Francisco garter snakes. And while no one has formally studied dog interaction with these species, there is evidence that where dogs are allowed to roam leash-free, wildlife activity decreases. (Other research suggests that the impact may be minimal.)

University of Oxford researcher Joelene Hughes said no one would dispute that dogs sometimes chase wild animals.

“As someone who has always had pet dogs and knows how important good exercise is for their welfare, I think off-leash areas are vital,” said Hughes, who conducted a review on the topic in 2013. “But that it disturbs wildlife is undoubted.”

Of course, the kerfuffle in California is also about trying to accommodate myriad visitor groups, said Nathan Hale Sargent, a public affairs specialist for the Park Service. You have people who want to enjoy the outdoors with their pets but also families with young children who want a dog-free beach experience. Some equestrians also prefer trails where they know their horses are less likely to be spooked by dogs.

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“What’s driving us is a need to be a park for everyone,” he said. “We want to provide a variety of park experiences, which includes off-leash and dog-walking.”

But dog advocates such as Dave Emanuel, a founding member of Save Our Recreation, think that there already are plenty of rules in place and that the recreation area would do better to focus more on enforcement than on creating new restrictions.

“We totally agree with people complying with current rules,” he said, “and dogs that misbehave, or owners that let their dogs misbehave, need to have some consequences.”

For Emanuel, the battle is personal. He said he and his 12-year-old American Staffordshire terrier, Peck, travel to the park almost every weekend, particularly to the Fort Funston area. So when someone handed him a flier in 2011 warning about losing access to Fort Funston completely, he got involved. Others have been advocating for more dog-friendly policies since as far back as 2001.

In addition to concerns about biodiversity and the needs of various park users, Sargent said the park must also consider resources. Each year, the recreation area’s law enforcement unit responds to about 300 dog-related incidents, he said. These can range from owners unleashing dogs in areas where that’s not allowed to more serious situations, such as attacks.

“Just a few months ago, an off-leash dog fell down a steep slope,” Sargent said. “The owner went after it and got stranded, and then a good Samaritan went after them and also got stranded. So we had three law enforcement agencies performing a high-angle rope rescue, including a helicopter rescue of the animal.”

The dramatic affair ended well for everyone involved. But Sargent said it’s an example of time, effort and money the park would rather not have to spend.

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Bittel writes about weird animals for a living. You can find more of his work at his website www.bittelmethis.com.