Who’s A Park For? Dog Owners Fight Park Service

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in California’s Bay Area, is expanding, quite literally, up next to some people’s backyards. And while you might think neighbors would be thrilled to see this scenic landscape preserved, the relationship between the National Park Service and locals is off to a rocky start.

If you love your dog the way Peggy and Bill Bechtell love Kalie, you couldn’t ask for a better place to live than right on the border of Rancho Corral de Tierra. The ranch is 4,000 acres of cypress trees and grassy rolling hills, about 20 minutes south of San Francisco. Peggy says it is dog paradise.

“We don’t have a community center, that’s our socialization out there. There’s 12 dogs running around playing together,” she says.

Until recently, this land was owned by a local land trust, which mostly just let it be. But in January, the land officially joined the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s now part of the National Park System. The Bechtells, like a lot of others here, are none too pleased.

“We’ve had nothing but great community here for 32 years and the minute they come, they ruin it,” Peggy says. “Everybody’s upset. Everybody’s furious. And frightened.”

She is referring to an incident that made national headlines recently, when a national park ranger used a stun gun on a man walking his dog in the park. According to the park ranger, Gary Hesterberg of Montara was walking his two dogs off leash, in violation of official national park policy. The ranger tried to give him a ticket, but Hesterberg allegedly gave her a false name and refused to stop. John Bartlett was there, and saw Hesterberg collapse onto the ground.

“I didn’t know if the guy was dying,” Bartlett says. “For a leash on a dog!”

There’s some backstory here. Out of nearly 400 national parks in the U.S., Golden Gate National Recreation Area is the only one where park officials have been forced to make some exceptions to their dog policy. So, at a few other parts of the park, locals can take their dogs off leash. But here at the Rancho, officials had hoped to impose the more restrictive dog policy. That’s because they have other species to think about here, too.

“Here’s our plant,” Susie Bennett, a naturalist for the park service, points proudly to a fragile-looking little yellow flower with heart-shaped petals.

“This is a very, very special plant,” Bennett says. “It’s only found in two places in the whole world.” It’s called Hickman’s Potentilla. It’s not just a pretty plant, it’s also a botanical mystery. Scientists studied this flower for years and they still don’t know how it pollinates and spreads.

“So, it’s a real plant that we’d like to focus some management on,” Bennett says.

This is a big and delicate project. The Park Service will have to pull out invasive plants, and encourage bees and other insects. It’s not hard to see why a bunch of local dogs could get in the way of that process, which forces the question, who are national parks for, anyway?

“We have, on the one hand, the mandate of the National Park Service to protect resources for the future,” Howard Levitt, spokesman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, says.

“At the same time, parks are there to be enjoyed by people, and so creating a balance between protecting resources and allowing people to enjoy the areas that house those resources is always a challenge,” Levitt says.

That’s a bit of an understatement. The park received 5,000 letters over its proposed dog policy. Levitt says the Service is now considering letting people bring their dogs off leash in this part of the park.

Copyright 2012 KQED Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.